NCAA at-large process causes frayed nerves, drive

T.R. Foley

3/2/2012
T.R. Foley, InterMat Senior Writer
foley@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @trfoley

Ryan DesRoches shouldn't have been that worried.

Last season, as the nation's 15th-ranked wrestler at 165 pounds and a returning NCAA qualifier, his selection by the NCAA at-large committee seemed a guarantee. He'd qualified a weight class for the Pac-10, but because he was upset in the semifinals of the conference tournament, he was forced to wait along with scores of other wrestlers to find out if he qualified for another NCAA tournament.

"I remember training after Pac-10s and feeling good about my chances, but every once in a while I'd kinda wonder," says DesRoches, a senior at Cal Poly who is currently ranked seventh at 174 pounds.

This season DesRoches earned an automatic berth in the NCAAs despite losing a narrow 5-4 decision to top-ranked Nick Amuchastegui of Stanford in the finals of the Pac-12 tournament. He was happy to not be playing the waiting game he had to last season.

Ryan DesRoches received an at-large selection last season (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
The Pac-10/12 holds its conference tournament a week prior to other conferences, which gives the member schools an extra week of training for NCAAs, but also forces the wrestlers in contention for an at-large bid to wait a full extra week, something that left DesRoches biting his nails to the very end.

"I really did feel confident I was going to be selected, but I was listening to them announce names and mine just wasn't being called," says DesRoches. "I'd waited for almost two full weeks and after 30 names had been called I'm still sitting there wondering. I ended up having to wrestle Andrew Howe, who was the No. 2 seed last season."

DesRoches was the last name called.

The old system wasn't much better. Ask any bow-legged cauliflower wrestler in his thirties and they'll retell horror stories of waiting after the conference tournament to find out which wrestlers the conference chose. The system used to work off historical data and gave the conferences and their coaches discretion on who to place in the NCAA tournament. An ACC tournament in 2005 might have 16 qualifiers, with 10 automatic and six at-large. Coaches then huddled and attempted to appeal for their wrestlers, and possibly who they thought might benefit the conference's chance at earning more bids in the future.

As the coaches discussed, wrestlers were sitting in locker rooms and abandoned auditoriums awaiting their decisions and coming to justifications all on their own for who should and shouldn't go. It was a random process with little justification.

The new process does seem to extract more of the top wrestlers from conference tournaments and into the NCAA Championships, though the wrestlers have now become more aware of the process in advance of their conference tournament. Should they falter, how did someone near their RPI do at their conference tournament? Was there an upset? Who would go if ... ? And what if ... ?

Matt Nelson is one wrestler who might end up sitting on the bubble (Photo/Virginia Sports Information)
Matt Nelson of Virginia is one wrestler who might end up sitting on the bubble. Ranked in the top 20 for part of the season, Nelson has quality wins over other ranked opponents and a solid 15-4 record, but heading into the conference tournament he has alternating visions of his own dominance and the reality that anyone can have a bad day and end up in the mercy of the national at-large selection committee.

"There are three spots and I'm the second-seeded guy at the weight," says Nelson. "I'm looking to beat both my opponents, and I'm focused on doing that as best I can with the stuff that I already do well."

He does admit that should something happen, he hopes that his work to this point has gotten him far enough.

"The last three years I was the guy carrying the water bucket," says Nelson who has spent the majority of his time in Charlottesville suffering from severe concussions. The 2011-2012 season has been his first season on the mat. "I'm thinking about what I can do at NCAAs and I'm sure that if I have to wait to hear from the committee that the time between the end of ACCs and when they announce is gonna stink, but I'm going to train through even if that is the case."

The pressure for many of these wrestlers couldn't be greater. Unlike the team sports where blame can be deferred, college wrestlers are forced to take on the reality of their shortcomings in front of their friends, families and teammates. An extended wait period only prolongs the amount of time that support system will pump them up with confidence or analyze the RPI of opposing wrestlers and who they think might also make the cut. It's an exhausting proposition.

In the meantime, if they don't automatically qualify, they'll be asked to train as if they were, a tough psychological hedge for any wrestler with goals of being an All-American or NCAA champion, but facing the reality that they might not even be allowed to participate.

"I think it's all about getting that chance," says Nelson. "Whether I earn the automatic qualifier spot, or get in at-large, my goal is to be standing on the podium in two weeks.

"I'll deal with just about anything to get there."

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