When Brandon Wright stepped onto the mat on Feb. 5, a Southern Conference team title and an eight-year winning streak hung in the balance. Chattanooga hadn’t lost a conference dual meet since 2004, but trailed by just a point over Appalachian Sate when the final bout began, at 165.
Against ASU’s Kyle Blevins, then ranked No. 16 nationally, Wright lost a 6-3 decision, and the Mocs’ SoCon dominance was temporarily halted.
Wright wasn’t favored to beat Blevins, and the match had swung earlier when the Mountaineers got a pin in overtime at 149. Yet, by chance of the pre-match draw, Wright was the one left standing as a busload of fans that traveled from Boone, N.C. celebrated in Maclellan Gymnasium.
For a month, that sting lingered. Wright finished the regular season with an 18-9 record, but a strong second half of the year was tainted by the loss to Blevins.
On March 3, the chance at redemption came in the SoCon tournament. With stakes again high, Blevins awaited Wright in the 165 championship bout. A loss would likely mean the end to Wright’s college wrestling career. A win would put him in the NCAA tournament.
“The match went the exact way that we had the gameplan going,” Wright said. “(Coach Heath Eslinger) said keep it close, then when it comes down to the wire, that’s when you can score.
“At the time, that could have been my last college match ever. If I lose that match, then my career is over. I just went for it.”
The two wrestled into overtime. Then Wright scored on a reversal to win a 3-2 decision. Eslinger pumped his fist and jumped onto press row. The Chattanooga crowd responded with the loudest cheer of the night in McKenzie Arena.
“Even though I had already lost to him before, I just knew I was going to win,” Wright said. “We train for it every day so it wasn’t anything new to me. I went into that match knowing I was going to win, believing I was going to win and forgetting about the things that had already happened because that’s what we train to do.”
While Wright modestly celebrated the next step toward his ultimate of goal of becoming an All-American, Eslinger’s excitement stemmed from what he saw as the fulfillment of potential.
As a sophomore, Wright’s season ended with a suspension for breaking team rules the week before the SoCon tournament, where he would have been heavily favored at 165. Last season, bumped to 174, he reached the NCAA tournament, but was swept out with two straight losses.
Now back at 165, Wright says he feels more comfortable. Eslinger thinks he has the opportunity to make a deep run in the national tournament.
“I suspended him my first year here for breaking a team rule and he hated me for about two months,” Eslinger said. “But my job is not for them to like me. My job is to do what’s right for the program, for them as student-athletes and I think now he likes me plenty.
“Brandon’s made a huge turnaround, not just wrestling-wise. He’s been good at wrestling from the get-go. I think he’s just grown up as an individual. The kid can wrestle.”
Despite what he called a disappointing start to the year, Wright hasn’t been pinned all season, and he’s only lost once by major decision – an 8-0 defeat against No. 3 Shane Onufer from Boise State. Just like in his second meeting with Blevins, Wright has made a habit of winning close matches. Eleven of his 21 wins this season have been decided by four points or less.
Wright is scheduled to meet Michigan State’s David Cheza in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, which begins next Thursday in St. Louis. To become an All-American, he’ll have to finish in the top eight of a 33-man bracket at 165.
“He’s a great athlete and he knows how to wrestle,” Eslinger said. “He doesn’t give up a lot of points and when that’s the case, when you wrestle seven minutes hard, you put yourself in a position to win. He’s got to do that for 30 more minutes.
“I think this is the first time when he’s really believed in what he’s capable of. It’s a good time to start believing.”