Before a match, Citadel wrestler Odie Delaney paces back and forth on the mat, staring down his opponent.
“I’m thinking about just how bad I want to beat the guy across from me,” said the Bulldogs’ 6-3, 235-pound heavyweight. “How I will make him break and make him not want to wrestle me anymore.
“I stare them down to let them know that I’m going to the mat to break him, physically and mentally, to ruin his dreams and make mine come true.”
More often than not, Delaney’s psych job works. The redshirt senior has won four Southern Conference championships, the first Citadel wrestler to do so. The SoCon wrestler of the year has won 17 straight matches and is 37-7 this season, and with 120 career wins is No. 2 on the Bulldogs’ career list.
But at the NCAA championships, starting today in Des Moines, Iowa, Delaney gets his final shot at a dream that’s eluded him on three previous trips to “March Matness” — a national championship, and/or a top eight finish and All-America status. Teammates Ugi Khishignyam, the SoCon freshman of the year, and Matt Frisch also qualified for the nationals.
“That’s been my goal, ever since I started wrestling,” said Delaney, who began as one of 14 wrestling cousins in Alaska. “All-America is an elite group, and I’ve worked my butt off for it. I think I’ve earned it. I’ve paid for it already, and now I need to go get it.”
It won’t be easy, of course. Ranked 13th in the nation coming into the tournament, Delaney did not earn one of the 12 seeds. But he and his coaches think he’s better prepared than ever to become only the second Citadel wrestler to earn All-American status (the first was Dan Thompson in 2006).
“This is his last crack at it, so it’s probably the most important tournament of his life so far,” said Citadel coach Rob Hjerling. “Absolutely, he’s wrestling his best. His footwork is great, his mental attitude and coachability, his outlook on the bracket. He’s showing a lot of maturity and composure.”
It’s difficult to find a teammate to push Delaney in the wrestling room, so Hjerling has brought assistant coaches like Mexico Olympian Jesse Ruiz and, this year, former Nebraska standout Tucker Lane to the staff to work with Delaney.
Lane himself just missed All-America status a couple of times, so he knows what it takes. Delaney’s always been a “dangerous” wrestler, he said, but now has added skill to that physical presence.
“There can be a lot of pressure,” Lane said. “There are a lot of talented guys there, all shooting for the same thing. I think Odie is doing a good job of overcoming that right now. He was feeling it a couple of weeks ago, the culmination of his career and everything.
“Now, I feel he’s in a good place to trust his training and let the skills and training do the talking.”
Delaney, who plans to join the Charleston Police Department after college, will face North Dakota State’s Evan Knutson (16-13) in the first round, and could draw No. 2 seed Anthony Nelson (28-1) in the second. He lost to Nelson by a narrow 4-2 margin this season.
Khishignyam (38-4) is seeded sixth at 141 pounds, and the native of Mongolia faces Lehigh’s Anthony Salupo (13-9) in the first round. Frisch (30-13), a transfer from Northern Illinois at 157 pounds, drew No. 2 seed Derek St. John (26-2) of Iowa in the first round.
Matches will be shown on ESPN3.com today and Friday; on ESPNU Friday night and Saturday morning; and the finals will be on ESPN at 8 p.m. Saturday.