published Saturday, March 1st, 2014

Eslinger sees Mocs as rankings regulars

Ranked with the elite

1983-84: Opened year at No. 13 but fell out after Midlands.

1988-89: Ranked one week at No. 17.

2004-05: Climbed to 18th, fell out after early-December loss to Army. Returned at No. 24 but fell out after consecutive losses to Indiana and Cal State-Bakersfield.

National wrestling rankings have come and gone at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

As far back as the mid-1980s the Mocs have rubbed shoulders with the nation's elite, but their visits came and went sporadically.

The 2013-14 Mocs, currently preparing for the Southern Conference tournament, ended the regular season No. 24 after climbing as high as No. 19, and it has been and is the intent of coach Heath Eslinger that the national-ranking flirtations become more of a permanent relationship.

"There are very few mid-major [programs] in the Top 25, and we're glad we're one of them," Eslinger said. "This ranking shows that we're competing with the upper echelon of Division I wrestling, but I don't think it's a stamp of approval. You're not going to validate a program completely on results. Validation comes on the whole body of work, but I think it speaks well for our consistency."

Jon Sioredas, now an assistant for Eslinger, was an All-America 165-pounder for the Mocs in 2005, one of the years in which they were among the Top 25. That group, in Terry Brands' final season as coach, received an ovation at the NCAA tournament when it stood among the nation's top 10 after the first day of competition.

"Back then we were a smaller school with a smaller budget that was competing, and that's what's happening now," Sioredas said. "This is a big deal, a breaking-through point -- breaking into the Top 25 and being in there the last seven weeks of the season."

Eslinger took over the program almost five years ago with a plan that involved a certain type of athlete, one dedicated to the sport but embracing his total-student-athlete philosophy.

"I felt competitiveness would be the last thing to come. We have stayed true to the progression, and now we're seeing it come to fruition," he said.

"A lot of it is the type student-athletes we bring in. When you have great kids in your program, consistency is the key," Eslinger said. "As we continue to bring in great kids, I think we will see these type results and hopefully even better."

Alex Hudson was in Eslinger's initial recruiting class. The only senior on this year's team and a defending conference champion, Hudson has seen and been a part of the change.

"Compared to the early team, there's a difference in the type kid they're bringing in -- kids good in academics, good socially -- and we're keeping everyone on the team," he said. "When I first arrived it seemed like there were a lot of individuals wrestling for themselves. There's more cheering for each other now than we've ever had."

He quickly became indignant when asked if UTC actually belonged in the Top 25.

"Absolutely," he responded. "We've been competitive. The [National Duals] match against North Dakota State (a 28-10 loss) was a bit of a bad matchup, but our second match against [No. 16] Virginia Tech (a 22-17 loss), you change one match and we win it. I'm the only starter leaving after this year, and the guys coming back will have had another year's experience."

Eslinger is certain the Mocs are on the right track.

"Our kids really believe we belong, which is what we want. Once you feel you belong, it becomes more feasible year in and year out," he said.

"One thing that makes this a little more special for us is that we're doing it the right way with the right kids," Sioredas added. "We didn't sign a bunch of high-risk kids. We're doing it with a majority of blue-collar kids, kids who work hard, go to class and do the right things socially."

The Mocs earned 16 wins in a schedule that included nine meets against Top 25 opponents. They hung their hats on a 25-13 win over then No. 15 Stanford.

"It could have been 19 [wins] or 20," Eslinger reflected. "I really think we're one or two weights away from moving from a top-25 team to a top-15 team. We need to go find those two or three guys that can come in and have an immediate impact."

Contact Ward Gossett at wgossett@timesfreepress.com or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.

about Ward Gossett...

Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...

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