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PSU WRESTLE-OFFS – Darling battling for starting spot

Sunday, Nov. 02, 2008 – Centre Daily

UNIVERSITY PARK — Tim Darling’s high school resume sparkles like a three-stone diamond. It also means little at this moment.

Darling begins his second college season at today’s Penn State wrestle-offs without the guaranteed starting spot he could have received had he decided to compete elsewhere.

The group competing with Darling at 165 pounds includes senior Mark Friend, who opened the past two seasons as a starter, 2007 PIAA Class AA runner-up Micah Bollinger, 2008 PIAA Class AA runner-up Nick Venditti and Bellefonte graduate Michael Lorenzo. The winner will likely be named the starter for the Nov. 16 opener against Hofstra.

None of the other 165-pound hopefuls arrived on campus with the same credentials or name recognition as Darling. He’s one of six athletes to claim three PIAA Class AAA titles this decade and he’s regarded as one of the best wrestlers in District 11 Nazareth’s storied history. He won his third state title at 152 pounds in 2007.

Since then, Darling, a redshirt freshman, has adjusted to the rigors of college wrestling and life away from an area where high school wrestling champions are treated like royalty.

“It’s a battle, but that’s why I came to the Big Ten,” Darling said this past week. “When I committed here, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. If I wanted an easy job, I would have gone to a school where they set a job aside for me and I probably would have never gotten better.

“Competition breeds improvement. If I’m going to make this team, I’m going to have to earn my spot. If I earn my spot, then I’m going to succeed because I’m wrestling the best guys.”

Darling is competing for a job that became available when coach Troy Sunderland dismissed Dave Rella this past spring for a violation of team rules. The presence of multiple attractive options suggests the Nittany Lions have the depth to overcome the sudden loss of a national qualifier.

Sunderland called Friend, Darling and Bollinger the leading candidates to begin the season at 165.
“That might be a weight class where we can wrestle it a couple of different times and somebody different might win each time,” Sunderland said. “It’s a long season and we’re fortunate to have some good kids there. We will see who emerges and steps up to take that weight class.”

Friend opened 2006-07 as a starter at 165 but sustained a hamstring injury and lost his job to Rella. He opened 2007-08 as the starter at 174 but he lost his job to David Erwin and suffered a staph infection on his knee. Friend, a fifth-year senior from Illinois with a 23-12 career record, has already proven he can handle the unforgiving nature of public wrestle-offs, subsiding the early-season buzzes Rella and Erwin created the past two years.

“It’s very similar this year,” said Friend, whose career highlight includes a defensive pin of Edinboro’s Deonte Penn during the 2006 Pennsylvania State Duals. “Even though I’m older, Darling and some other guys have a lot of experience that I’m not overlooking. It’s going to be a battle, and like I said to a lot of people, we’re not just looking at wrestle-offs. We’re looking at the end result. Whoever is starting on the mat at 165 is going to put their best foot forward.”

Darling also expects a scrap today.

“It’s going to be real tough,” he said. “The freshmen we have are fighters in the room and they don’t want to lose, and Mark shows up for wrestle- offs. He’s always tough at the beginning of the year.”
Darling said he hopes an increased commitment to wrestling carries him through this season.
Darling competed sparingly as a redshirt freshman but never displayed the zest many believe he needs to compete in the Big Ten. He said he tried gliding through last year, both academically and athletically. He struggled without the presence of his parents and he gradually learned what worked at Nazareth can create problems at Penn State.

“I was coming from high school where my parents were getting on me all the time,” he said. “I have that personality where if I have a free minute I’m going to take two free minutes. Basically, I became lazy in all areas. I have to keep up with wrestling and keep up with my studies because I’m a smart kid and I’m used to just floating through. You get to college and that doesn’t work anymore. The coaches give me every opportunity and they are there for me. Sometimes I’m not there for them.”

Darling said he’s beginning to change his ways. Darling, who wrestled at 149 as a true freshman, never lifted weights in high school but he has started to gain the muscle needed to compete at 165. His workouts also have become more intense since two-time Iowa national champion Mark Perry and former Lehigh standout Troy Letters joined Penn State’s wrestling staff.

With returning All-Americans Bubba Jenkins and Dan Vallimont occupying the 149- and 157-pound weight classes, Darling’s only realistic chance of starting this season rests at 165.

“I just have to bring my best stuff and throw it all out there,” he said. “That’s all you can do. You just have to keep working and everything will work out for the best.”

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