The North Carolina wrestling team enters this weekend’s Cliff Keen Invite in Las Vegas after a start to the season it would like to forget, but the team remains optimistic.
A number of inopportune injuries constitute a major reason for UNC’s 0-7 start. In Saturday’s Northeast Duals, UNC had to forfeit three weight classes — 165, 174 and heavyweight — in each of its three losses to nationally ranked opponents.
UNC fell to No. 16 Rutgers, No. 22 Pennsylvania and No. 10 Lehigh by scores of 33-9, 32-12 and 27-17, respectively.
“It is what it is,” coach C.D. Mock said of his team’s slate of injuries. “We’re hoping to have almost everybody back and healthy for this weekend.”
Leading UNC into the weekend is an impressive crop of underclassmen, highlighted by freshmen Evan Henderson and Alex Utley. Henderson has an 11-1 record on the year, while Utley has gone 8-6. Sophomore Corey Mock has also performed well, with a record of 8-4.
Having a strong group of young wrestlers is an advantage, but C.D. Mock takes it with a grain of salt.
“It bodes well for the future, (but) it’s kind of a mixed message,” he said. “We’d like to have some of the upperclassmen provide leadership.”
UNC will face top programs from around the nation Friday and Saturday, including last year’s champion, No. 3 Cornell.
But despite the strong competition and the shaky start, the Tar Heels remain unfazed.
“My main goal is to just go out there and win it,” he said. “I’ll wrestle my best and hope for the best outcome.”
Utley’s growing confidence is in part due to his performance last weekend. He posted a 2-1 record at the duals, but it was the loss that was the most memorable.
In his last match of the meet, Utley found himself across the mat from the top-ranked 184-pound wrestler in the country, junior Robert Hamlin of Lehigh.
The freshman went toe-to-toe with the All-American before falling 4-2. Facing one of the best wrestlers in his weight class is not a feat Utley takes lightly.
“It lets you know where you’re at,” Utley said. “It’s definitely a big step up.”
After this weekend’s meet, UNC will look to regroup heading into 2012. The team has a well-deserved break, with no more competition until New Year’s Day.
Mock hopes that the injuries that have plagued the team so far this season are behind them.
“We’re hoping to have everyone healthy (throughout December),” he said. “December will be a much-needed break.”
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