As the UNCP wrestling team prepare to send its record-tying eight wrestlers to the Division II National Championship in Iowa next weekend, Head Coach Othello “OT” Johnson took some time to look back on the season and how his team got to this point as well as share his expectations for his wrestlers that punched their ticket to national at the Super Regional tournament.
“As a program, we definitely took a step in the right direction. We got to a certain point in the season where there were a lot of uncertainties as far as who we were, what we wanted to be and where we were headed,” said Johnson.
The team got off to a rocky start to their season as they struggled early on in their dual meets before rounding into form and carrying the momentum of a three dual match winning streak into the postseason and now for the deserving eight, a well-earned opportunity to compete for a national title.
“It’s always good to take momentum into the postseason or just have momentum in general. When you’re in athletic, momentum is a great thing because it gets rid of some of those uncertainties that some guys may have,” said Johnson.
He cited the team’s outing at the Kutztown Duals and their bout with former conference rival Limestone back in November as a time where they had to do a tremendous amount of soul searching to attempt to find themselves as a team and as a group.
“I think that time was really a turning point for us, and our guys really stuck together and kept the faith, did a good job not panicking and trusting the system. I think that is a testament to our staff to constantly remind the guys about the history that we’ve created here,” said Johnson.
In years past teams have gotten out to rough starts to their seasons before turning their fortunes around as the postseason approaches following a less than optimal regular season. They were not able to fulfill their goal of dominating in all of their dual meets but were still able to grow and mature as a team.
“Finishing 7-5 is not great but at the same time we definitely took a step in the right direction, trying to figure out how we can be a better dual meet team in the future,” said Johnson.
The team feels good about the high note that they ended the regular season on and that it was the force that catapulted them into the regional tournament, where they feel like the performed well as they came up a forfeiture in the heavyweight class shy of claiming first place as a team.
“There’s a reason why there’s a regular season and a postseason. If you look at our guy’s record, you wouldn’t tell that those guys would be able to go out and have the kind of postseason they did based on some of the guys having double-digit losses,” said Johnson.
Following each of those losses, OT and his staff would remind their wrestlers that everything they’re going through, including the losses, serve a purpose. Each loss is a learning lesson and if they look at it as a lesson learned, good thing will occur when it matters most.
Over the course of the season, there were many Braves that stood out, had outstanding moments and performances, took strides as individuals, helped the overall success of the team and exemplified the characteristics that Johnson believes members of the program should embody.
Redshirt senior Faris Teia was one of the wrestlers that he highlighted as making some of the biggest strides from not just the beginning of the season to the postseason but over his entire tenure with the Braves.
“A guy that didn’t have the great accolades coming into college but he’s a guy that just continued to buy in and do the right things,” said OT.
Teia had to get an NCAA waiver in order to receive his last semester of eligibility and he made the most of it when he punched his ticket to the national championship tournament for the first time in his career.
“Not only did he have to do his job on his own, but he had to continue to remember all the things he’s done all through the first four years and know that they would carry over into thus last semester that he had, and he did a great job,” said Johnson.
He gave major props to redshirt junior Tyler Makosy for not only avenging some the losses that he suffered at the hands of some regional opponents in the Super Regional tournament, but also for putting in the extra time on the mat getting better, improving on his cardio and conditioning to increase his stamina and watching film to study ways to enhance his repertoire.
Freshman Ronnie Pietro recovered from a rocky start to his first year before catching his stride in the second half of the season and was a force to be reckoned with down the stretch. Johnson credits his commitment to not only improving his skill on the mat but improving his overall health by buying into the nutrition aspect that the program preaches.
“He’s another guy that I’d say as far as improvement, over the course of our season has made a tremendous adjustment and improvement in his wrestling, more so in his mindset,” said OT.
Makosy, along with All-Americans Rodney Shepard and Nick Daggett will be making their second straight trips to the national championship tournament. Johnson believes that since this will be their second go-round at nationals, that they will be able to provide leadership and a sense of calm so that the team’s first-timers can follow their lead.
“I think they’ll be relaxed and it's going to help the other guys who haven’t been there before having that relaxed feel to the tournament and enjoy it because this is the last tournament of the year. If you go in there tight, worrying too much about things that you don’t know are going to happen then you’re not going to wrestle to your ability,” said Johnson.
The expectations for the team at nationals are extremely high. Their standard is much higher than just making it to the tournament and they carry with them a chip on their shoulder after not performing up to that standard for the majority of the season.
“The guys know that there’s something that still needs to be accomplished in a week. They have high expectations for themselves, they know what they’re capable of doing and we know what they’re capable of doing,” said OT.
He and his staff emphasize doing the little things right and getting them corrected so that those won’t lead to critical mistakes at inopportune moments when it matters most.
“The people, the team that do it part of the time, only see part success. They don’t see success all through and I think our expectations for our guys are to go out there, lace it up, have faith in their training, have faith in themselves, have faith in their ability and have faith in us. We’re going to put them in the right place and we’re going to do right by them and if they do all those things, there’s no telling,” said Johnson.