"I tell the guys they need to find a rhythm throughout the week. Stay steady from the time we leave here until Saturday night," Jones continued. "Now that I'm a coach, I find myself riding it much more than I did as a competitor. I'm riding it for everybody now, not just for myself."
Seven West Virginia Mountaineer wrestlers traveled to Detroit – more specifically, to the Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan , home of the Detroit Pistons – to begin competition in the big dance, the NCAA championships, led by the University's winningest coach in the sport's history, Craig Turnbull. Turnbull has coached all five of WVU's national champions and 25 of the school's 30 All-Americans in the sport.
"Seven is on the high end of our expectations," Turnbull commented, "but the last three or so dual meets, we wrestled very well, peaking at the right time."
Mark Anderson (133), Brandon Rader (141), David Jauregui (149), Zac Fryling (157), Kurt Brenner (174), Jared Villers (197), and Dustin Rogers (HWT) will don the Blue and Gold to meet the nation's best from storied programs such as Iowa State, Minnesota, Cornell, Oklahoma State, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Penn State. Only Rader is seeded, at seventh in his weight class.
"At this point, everybody's healthy, but we're still a young team," Turnbull pointed out. The Mountaineers are taking no seniors, only one junior, and the rest freshmen and sophomores. "Like John Beilein says, you can't produce experience in practice, but all of our junior and sophomores have been at least once to nationals, and Dustin Rogers is a national junior college champion, so hopefully that will increase the comfort level of everyone."
Rader, a native of Parkersburg, was West Virginia's first true freshman to be an All-American in wrestling in school history. "Nationals is all about my teammates, the competition, the discipline. My big concerns are that everything will go well, I'll prepare well, eat right, and be healthy," he said. "This will be my second year, so it's not new. I will know things that true freshmen don't know. Experience always helps."
Rader battled an injury, the flu, and then a freakish skin infection during the course of the season, but reports that he is "100%" for the tournament. "My goal," he said, "is to be the first native West Virginian ever to win a national championship in this sport."
The feel-good story of this year's post-season is Mark Anderson at 133 pounds. He is one of only three wrestlers in the entire field to enter the NCAA tournament with a sub-.500 record. "Mark only won one match the second half of the year," Turnbull noted. "His success in the EWL [Eastern Wrestling League] tournament is a real tribute to his character. It's very hard at any level if you don't win and easy to let the season slip away, but Mark believed us when we told him he was getting better, and then he upset the #2 and #3 seed at EWLs to earn a ticket to the dance. He is really representative of the effort and quality of these young men."
WVU's first round pairings are:
133: Mark Anderson vs. Christian Staylor of Old Dominion University
141: #7 Brandon Rader vs. Kyle Borshoff of American University
149: David Jauregui vs. Matt Doughlin of Indiana University
157: Zac Fryling vs. Jacob Yost of the University of Chattanooga
174: Kurt Brenner has a bye. In the second round, he will face the winner of the match between Eastern Illinois's Kenneth Robertson and #12 Mike Letts of the University of Maryland.
197: Jared Villers also has a bye in the first round. In the second round, he will meet #6 seed J. D. Bergman of Ohio State.
HWT: Dustin Rogers vs. David Zabriskie of Iowa State University
First round matches will take place Thursday morning, March 15. The second round begins Thursday evening. The championship bouts will be Saturday.
Of course, it wouldn't be a national tournament in any sport without a little controversy. "The NCAA is evaluating the qualifying system [for nationals], and has asked coaches to respond to some proposals that are on the table," Turnbull reported. "The ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference] has five fully-supported programs, but can take only 14 wrestlers to nationals. Using the current system, it will take forever to get them enough numbers to make it worth their while to support the sport financially."
Turnbull is not opposed to changing the qualifying system, but says it's too early to predict how the issue will be resolved. Some persons in the sport believe that a regional qualifying system, not wed to the various athletic conferences, may be the healthiest and most balanced for the growth of wrestling and provide the fairest representation at the NCAA tournament. In other words, it may be a way to prevent the rich wrestling programs of the Big 10 and Big 12 to keep getting richer and everyone else from getting poorer.
"There is always resistance to change," the Mountaineer mentor smiled. "I'm sure there will be a mixed reaction to the concept, but whatever is good for wrestling is good for West Virginia." He resisted the temptation to point out that WVU's present affiliation, the Eastern Wrestling League, has seen its representation at the NCAAs shrink in recent years. This year, EWL takes 32 wrestlers, down from the previous 42. The Big 12, on the other hand, one of wrestling's premiere conferences, qualified more than 40 wrestlers – out of only five teams who compete in the sport.
"We'll just throw them all in and see how they come out," their head coach smiled. "Hopefully, we'll do our best and leave satisfied."