It's wrestling's version of March Madness, said WVU head coach Craig Turnbull, "but this sport is different from many, where you've already got your way to the national tournament arranged before the league or conference tournament begins. Not wrestling. You can be number one in the country, but if you lose in your conference tournament, you're out."
The good news is that the opposite also applies. "Maybe you were sick part of the season, or for whatever reason, you didn't perform as well as you'd hoped. If you get through to the finals of your league championship, you've earned a trip to the national tournament," Turnbull explained. "It's a whole new season."
This isn't just one of those "any little kid can grow up to be president" -style anecdotes. One of Turnbull's best friends in college, Gary Barton, with whom he wrestled at Clarion, is Exhibit A in the second season story. Barton – who would go on to coach WVU's first national wrestling champion, Scott Collins, at Clearfield PA High School – finished his senior season at 13-14. No one expected him to get to the NCAAs, let alone win them. "But he got hot at the right time," his friend recalled. "He had four straight one-point wins, two of them in overtime, and ended up a national champion."
As if enough were not riding on the EWL tourney for the Mountaineers, the selection process has changed this year. In previous years, the top three wrestlers in each weight category were guaranteed a trip to the NCAA tournament. EWL coaches chose five or six other wrestlers as wild card tournament qualifiers. "Now it will be the top two from the EWL tournament, and the coaches will vote on 12 wild cards," Turnbull said. "This will be much more tense. It concerns me. I'm not comfortable with this. It makes it like gymnastics – you have to give impressions to get the votes you need."
"You can end someone's career by vote, not on the mat," the senior mentor pointed out.
Edinboro College of Pennsylvania will be favored to win the EWL this year. They enter post-season competition ranked #6 in the nation. But don't count out the Mountaineers. "This is a good league," Turnbull smiled. "There are no sure bets. If we wrestle well, we could get six people through to the NCAAs, but the wildcard process throws a wrench in this year. We won't really know what our chances are until the seedings for EWL are announced. We're as healthy as we're going to get. I hope we've prepared right and we can get our best wrestling out."
Sophomore Brandon Rader, a returning All-American from Parkersburg, agrees. "My biggest concern is to stay healthy, with no last minute injuries," he said. "The good news is that I got a little bit of experience last year and I'm not going into the postseason blind. I have a much better idea of how to prepare my body and not be surprised." Rader struggled this year with the flu, and then with a skin infection in his finger. "That came out of nowhere and held me out of two dual meets, but I'm ready," he asserted.
Zac Fryling, the junior who wrestles at 157, agreed. "I've been twice before, so the big arena, big names, TV, fans will be no surprise. I know what to expect and I know what I gotta do. My biggest concern is intensity. I've gotta step up to the plate. Redshirting last year helped me a lot. I couldn't wait to get back to wrestling. It made me really hungry this year."
The background music in the wrestling facility seems to respond to Rader and Fryling's calls for intensity – a little louder, a little more driving. David Jauregui, a sophomore who goes to Cleveland this week with an 18-3 record, smiles and starts his mantra: "Gotta get ready, gotta get ready, gotta get ready to wrestle."
Get ready, EWL, 'cause here they come.