If anyone is qualified to give advice to the seven Mountaineers now in St. Louis to contest the NCAA championships in wrestling, it would be three-time national champion and WVU assistant coach Greg Jones.
"I do know a little bit about this tournament," Jones smiled. "The best thing is to get ready from the opening whistle. That first round has the ability to set you up for the entire tournament, for good or for bad. It's extremely important to get off to a good start and don't worry about what comes next."
His boss, head coach Craig Turnbull, agrees. Turnbull believes that all seven of his charges are capable of performing well, but only if they can wrestle in the present, one round at a time.
"If they get their best wrestling out, they can stand somewhere on the podium," Turnbull said. "This group can work one match at a time and get in the national finals or not place at all, but they will be in the ball game all the way through."
Despite fielding a young squad this year, with only two graduating seniors, WVU's seven competitors have 16 trips to nationals among them. Only Donnie Jones at 165 and Chance Litton at 174 will be making their first appearance at the big dance. "That should help," Turnbull hoped. "The younger guys who haven't been will be surrounded by people who have been there and having Greg Jones walking through it with them should add to their comfort levels."
Parkersburg's Chance Litton admits to being a little nervous. "It would be better if Brandon [Rader, a two-time All-American, also from Parkersburg, not competing due to injury] and me were both going, but it feels good that I finally get to go. I'll just go into each match, give it my best effort, and hope for the best."
It may be Donnie Jones's first trip as a competitor, but he's been so many times as a spectator that he's lost count. "I have been five, six, seven times, which will give me an idea of what to expect. The atmosphere is indescribable. All you can do is stay focused."
Joining the two rookies will be veterans David Jauregui (149), Zac Fryling (157), Kurt Brenner (184), Jared Villers (197), and Dustin Rogers (285). Villers enters the competition with a #15 national ranking. Litton and Brenner are both listed at 18th in the country in their respective weight classes.
The Mountaineers unanimously agree that they are physically ready. "The last two years, managing my weight was a big issue," recalled David Jauregui. "I didn't make weight properly either time. We have two weeks between the [Eastern Wrestling League] tournament and nationals, which made it difficult, but I've been able to manage it better this time. If you don't feel good in your body, you don't want to be there. I'm ready this time."
Villers and Fryling echoed their teammate. "There's nothing more I can do physically," said a resolute Villers. "I've put in the work to where I'm in shape, my body's ready, all the muscle memories will be firing. It's just a matter of time and physically making my body feel as well as it can Thursday morning when we go into the first round."
"Physically, I'm ready," Fryling stated. "No one in this tournament will be 100%. Everyone has bumps and bruises by this time in the season. 90% of the guys will be wrestling at 80% of their capability. I'll push through like I've pushed through all year. The physical work is done."
All seven Mountaineers assert that the national tournament is more about their mental conditioning than their physical conditioning. There will be noise – big noise, especially compared to the modest home crowds before whom they usually work. There will be several thousand spectators, national television cameras and commentators, and a constant buzz of excitement.
"I just have to take it one match at a time, one period at a time, one minute at a time, break it down as small as I can and win every little thing I break down," Jauregui planned.
Fryling was philosophical. "I'm a senior. There is no tomorrow, no more learning, no more training for next year. There is no next year. That makes it more intense. I have nothing to lose and nothing to hold back."
The team left Morgantown at 7 a.m. Tuesday, March 18, and will begin competition on Thursday morning at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, with two matches each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon/evening. They may be experienced Mountaineers, but it won't be an easy climb for any of them.
First round pairings:
149: David Jauregui (10-6) v. # 8th Jake Patacsil, Purdue (25-6)
157: Zac Fryling (10-7) v. #4 Brandon Becker, Indiana (22-4).
165: Donnie Jones (8-7) v. Daniel Atondo, Bakersfield (30-10)
174: #18 Chance Litton (11-4) v. Shane Riccio, Bucknell (25-9)
184: #18 Kurt Brenner (15-1) v. #3 Tyrel Todd, Michigan (21-3)
197: #15 Jared Villers (15-0) v. #7 Hudson Taylor, Maryland (31-2)
285: Dustin Rogers (7-6) v. Andrew Tolusek, Old Dominion (26-15)
Intermatwrestle.com sees Villers and Rogers as possible challengers for national titles. The site points out that Villers upset Ohio State's sixth-seeded J.D. Bergman in the first round last year, and that Rogers is also "capable of making a run." Villers has been ranked as high as 12th earlier this year. His focus and determination going into nationals are impressive.
The quarterfinals will be televised live on ESPNU at 11 a.m. Friday, March 21. Semifinal matches will be shown at 7 p.m. that evening. ESPNU will broadcast the championship medal round Saturday morning at 11, and ESPN will televise the finals Saturday night at 8:30. Stay with BlueGoldNews.com for updates as the tournament progresses.
The Mountaineers wrestled several more matches this year than their won-loss records indicate. The results of the Cliff Keene Invitational, held in Las Vegas on December 1, were disqualified because meet officials forgot to do the requisite pre-match skin testing.
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Craig and Kyle Turnbull are awaiting a diagnosis on the shoulder injury Kyle, WVU's starter at 125, sustained at the EWL tournament. As of Monday, it was unclear whether Kyle reinjured the labrum he had surgically repaired last year. If this is a new injury, the prognosis will be much better. If this is a repeat of the previous injury, it could be career-threatening.
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The question of the day: how many sets of three siblings have competed in the NCAA wrestling tournament? Donnie Jones is following his older brothers Vertus and Greg, both of whom won championships, to nationals.