Numbers game at Clarion
When it comes to the NCAA Wrestling Championships, Clarion junior James Fleming believes there is power in numbers.
The former West Mifflin star is one of four Golden Eagles — twice as many as Clarion had last year — to attend the tournament in St. Louis this week. It’s that pack mentality that has the 157-pound Fleming thinking about standing atop the winner’s podium Saturday night.
“In previous years it kind of got to you because you’re going in there with one other guy, and you have teams there with 10 kids,” Fleming said. “The good thing about this year is that we have four guys going, so we can all push each other and feed off of each other.”
Fleming, who is seeded sixth and faces an opening-round match with Chattanooga’s Daniel Waddell (21-9) today, will be joined by teammates Bekzod Abdurakhmonov (165 pounds), Steven Cressley (184) and Quintas McCorkle (Hwt).
Clarion coach Matt Dernlan gave the group four days off following the Eastern Wrestling League tournament March 4 before enduring two strenuous workouts at the end of last week and two more at the beginning of this one. Supporting this more-the-merrier belief, Dernlan had the entire team continue practicing through the end of the week, even though only four Clarion wrestlers were traveling to St. Louis.
“When you’re trying to be the guy doing it yourself, it’s difficult,” Dernlan said. “It’s definitely much easier when you have a group of individuals all competing for the same thing, facing the same pressures, facing the same environment.
“There’s a level of comfort knowing that it’s not just you and your coaches, that the majority of your teammates are there.”
If Fleming can find success at this year’s tournament, it will represent a stark contrast from the past two years, when he lost four of his five matches on the national stage.
But with the arrival of Dernlan, a first-year coach who spent the past seven seasons as an assistant at reigning national champion Penn State, Fleming dropped his natural body weight to around 157 pounds instead of taking drastic measures to cut 10 or 15 pounds at weigh-in.
Many times last year, Fleming would run, bike or row before the start of a tournament simply to make weight. He also pressed on despite tearing a pectoral muscle that hindered him at last year’s NCAA event.
This year it’s been plenty of rest — Dernlan pulled Fleming off the mat for a week in the middle of December — and an improved diet, one that consists primarily of eggs and plain noodles.
“We’ve been talking all year, if you manage your weight, if we rest you the right way, it’s going to pay off the third week of March,” Dernlan said. “He’s definitely seeing the benefits of that. He’s energized. He’s excited. To go deep in this tournament, you have to be fresh, you have to be excited, and you have to want to be there.”
Recent evidence supports Dernlan’s assertion that Fleming is peaking. Fleming won his second consecutive EWL title with a 4-2 victory over Bloomsburg’s Frank Hickman, the sixth time in the past seven years Fleming has topped Hickman. Fleming got a first-period takedown and a second-period escape to build a 3-0 lead he would never relinquish.
“I want to go there, do my best and be on top of the podium,” said Fleming, who went 130-15 and won three WPIAL Class AAA titles during his career at West Mifflin. “I think with the training we’ve had, that will take care of itself.”
An odd preference
Clarion junior James Fleming hates using video — or anything else — to scout his opponents.
‘I feel when you go into a match, if you scout too much or look at what a guy does, you’ll alter the way you wrestle,’ Fleming said. ‘I’ve never believed in scouting because I want to be able to wrestle my own match not be worrying about what his strengths are.’
Given the fact Fleming is 86-14 in his career, has advanced to the NCAA championships three times and has won two Eastern Wrestling League titles, it’s pretty tough to argue.
‘You’re ready to step onto the mat and somebody will tell you, ‘This guy is extremely good at takedown defense. Don’t shoot on him,’ ‘ Fleming said. ‘Then you go out there with the idea that this guy is really good on defense, so I’m not going to shoot. You’re holding yourself back.’