UTC sophomore Levi Clemons became the fifth Chattanooga wrestler to earn a spot in next week’s NCAA tournament on Thursday afternoon. Brackets were released Wednesday, but after an injury to a wrestler in the field, Clemons was given a spot. The tournament starts March 15 in St. Louis, Mo. (Photo: Contributed/UTC Athletics)

Four UTC wrestlers cemented their spots in the NCAA tournament the conventional way. A fifth was surprised with the news of an unexpected berth. 

The NCAA released the tournament field for all 10 weight classes in 30-minute intervals throughout the day on Wednesday. Chattanooga’s Nick Soto (133), Dean Pavlou (149), Dan Waddell (157) and Brandon Wright (165) each watched their names roll across the screen, guaranteed a spot after claiming Southern Conference titles.  Levi Clemons tracked the coverage from his phone in class, paying extra attention to his 174-pound class, but had no real expectations. After a third-place finish at the SoCon tournament last week, he was guaranteed nothing. 

Around noon on Thursday, Clemons got a text message from head coach Heath Eslinger telling him one of the at-large bids was injured, and that he may be next in line.

Shortly thereafter, it was confirmed. The sophomore will be making his first trip to the national tournament, in place of Iowa State’s Chris Spangler.

(Wednesday) I was kind of disappointed, but I hadn’t really planned on getting in,” Clemons said. “When I found out (Thursday) that the guy got hurt, it was my opportunity to step up to the plate and keep training.”

The criteria for receiving an at-large bid is based on the full season’s work, not just the conference tournament result. Clemons’s 21-4 record was enough to make him the 10th different UTC wrestler to make it to the NCAA tournament in two seasons. 

He’s expected to wrestle No. 4 seed Logan Storley from Minnesota in the opening round next Thursday, when the tournament begins in St. Louis, Mo.

Eslinger admitted to having hopes for a few more at-large berths – four Mocs finished second in the SoCon tournament – but wasn’t shocked when none were chosen. Appalachian State’s Kyle Blevins (165) was the only SoCon wrestler to receive an at-large bid prior to Clemons late invitation.

Obviously you hope, but at the end of the day, there’s no rhyme or reason,” Eslinger said of the at-large bid selections. “There’s a lot of kids deserving, so the best way is just to take care of business (by winning a conference title). When you don’t, you put it in somebody else’s hands.”

Last season, the Mocs took six wrestlers to St. Louis, but came back without a win. Senior Brandon Wright is the lone holdover from that group, and Eslinger isn’t expecting similar results. 

“This isn’t a learning process,” Eslinger said. “You train hard and you go there and you compete. I think the unfortunate part with taking so many guys is maybe it looks worse than it really is. I do think we’ve got guys that have proven they can compete this year and I don’t anticipate that happening.”

For UTC wrestlers, SoCon titles are part of the preseason expectations. Once achieved, the focus shifts to maneuvering through a 33-man bracket into the top eight and earning all-American status.

The last to claim the honor for the Mocs was Cody Cleveland in 2008. Next week, 80 wrestlers from the field of 330 will become all-Americans. With Clemons’ late addition, Chattanooga will have five fighting for one of those spots. 

At the end of the day, you’ve got to win three or four matches and all three or four of them are going to be pretty hard,” Eslinger said.A lot of people look at this tournament and they think, you’ve got to win all these matches. No, you’ve got to win three or four. These guys have been winning three matches a day since they were eight years old.”

Full Brackets

UTC’s opening-round matchups:

133: Nick Soto vs. No. 4 B.J. Futrell (Illinois)

149: Dean Pavlou vs. No. 6 Tyler Nauman (Pittsburgh)

157: Dan Waddell vs. No. 6 James Fleming (Clarion)

165: Brandon Wright vs. David Cheza (Michigan State)

174: Levi Clemons vs. No. 4 Logan Storley (Minnesota)