What if I told you that there was a Division I wrestling program out there who had won 67 of its last 69 conference duals, 10 out of their last 12 conference tournaments and hosted one of the best regular season tournaments in the country each year? Would you have guessed it was the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs? Head Coach Heath Eslinger enters his eight season in charge of a program that has been the dominant force in the Southern Conference (SoCon) over the past decade while also turning the Southern Scuffle into one of the premiere regular season events in college wrestling.
The Mocs lost the SoCon title to Appalachian State a year ago by an agonizing half of a point. They return nine starters from that team, five of which qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2016. This is a team that beat Arizona State and Virginia a year ago and gave Stanford all they wanted before falling to the Cardinal by three points in dual meet action. Chattanooga qualified at least five wrestlers for the NCAA tournament for the sixth consecutive year.
One of the wrestlers that was unable to aid the Mocs in their 2016 post-season pursuits was Chris Debien (Fr, 133). After earning the starting job early in the season and showing promise as a true freshman, Debien was felled by injury. He was forced to take a redshirt, but returns this season, looks like the favorite to start at 133 and follow returning starter Alonzo Allen (So, 125) in the line-up.
Jared Johnson (Sr, 285), who earned his degree in Chemical Engineering in May, returns as well for his final go around. Johnson is a two-time NCAA qualifier and was the only Moc seeded at last year’s national tournament. The Outstanding Wrestler at the 2016 SoCon tournament, Kamaal Shakur (So, 157), also returns a year after posting a 24-8 record and earning SoCon Freshman of the Year honors. Those two, along with two-time SoCon champion Scottie Boykin (Sr, 197), will be looking to become the program’s first All-American since Cody Cleveland (141) in 2008.
Joining those three at the NCAA tournament a year ago were returning wrestlers Michael Pongracz (Sr, 141) and Sean Mappes (Sr, 174). John Lampe (184) ended his career with a trip to Madison Square Garden as well. He is the one starter that must be replaced. Coach Eslinger has a couple of good options to do so as Justin Lampe, brother to 2015-16 starters Dominic (So, 165) and John, is available, as is 2015 NJCAA champion Bryce Carr who redshirted last year. Carr is likely the favorite to take the spot, but it won’t be conceded to him.
If Debien and whoever wins the spot at 184 live up to their potential and the rest of the roster continues to improve, 2016-17 could be another year of conference dominance for Chattanooga. Another conference title is well within their grasp and they will be difficult to beat in any conference dual. Their challenge now is to maintain their position as a SoCon power while working to compete on the national level. They have been unable to finish in the top 25 at the NCAA tournament since 2007. Coach Eslinger and his staff have the program on solid footing. Now is the time to take the next step.
The 2016-17 University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs wrestling schedule features duals against Virginia Tech (Nov 13th), Virginia (Dec 4th), Ohio (Dec 16th) and Appalachian State (Feb 5th). Chattanooga opens their tournament schedule at the Lindenwood Open on November 19th. They host the Southern Scuffle January 1st and 2nd before heading to the Virginia Duals January 13th and 14th. The Southern Conference tournament is March 4th in Charleston, South Carolina. The NCAA Wrestling Championships return to St. Louis March 16th through 18th.