This is it for Chase Pami, his fourth and final chance at an NCAA wrestling title.
The Cal Poly senior missed out on his third straight Pac-10 title a couple of weeks ago, falling to Boise State rival Adam Hall in the finals of conference championships.
But seeded seventh in the NCAA Championships, which begin with today’s first round in Omaha, Neb., the 157-pounder sees hope in a bracket where he’s won against every grappler ranked above him at least once.
“I’ve beaten most of the guys in the bracket,” Pami said. “It’s just a good position to be in. I just have to put it all together for five matches, and the national title is going to be mine.”
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Pami (25-6) is one of five Mustangs in the NCAA Championships, a delegation where the individuals represent a wide spectrum of experience and expectations.
There’s Pami, the senior leader hoping to end his career with a bang. The Novachkov brothers, Filip and Boris, are trying to improve in their second trips to the postseason. And two newcomers, Ryan DesRoches and Nick Fisher, are making their first foray into nationals.
Cal State Bakersfield heavyweight Mitch Monteiro (16-5), a former Paso Robles High standout and Cal Poly transfer, is seeded 11th.
This group is the largest Cal Poly has advanced this far since the Mustangs sent seven wrestlers to the national meet in 2006. That year, then-sophomore Chad Mendes led Cal Poly with a sixth-place finish, and the Mustangs placed 23rd as a team.
The difference this season is that Cal Poly has three top-seven seeds instead of just one. Boris Novachkov is seeded fifth at 133 pounds, and Filip Novachkov is seventh at 141. A top-eight finish ensures All-America status.
“If we get three All-Americans,” Cal Poly head coach John Azevedo said, “we could possibly be right up there in the top 10.”
The Mustangs haven’t had multiple All-Americans since Darrell Vasquez and Vic Moreno finished fourth and sixth, respectively, at 133 and 125 pounds in 2004. Cal Poly was 16th as a team that year, the school’s best overall finish since placing 11th in 1985.
If the Mustangs are to eclipse that this season, the effort will have to start with their big guns.
Knowing this is his final shot and not having to deal with the pressure of defending a high seed, Pami knows he has nothing to lose. The challenge for him is to prove he is no longer reeling from that 5-1 loss to Hall in the Pac-10 finals.
“It stung me afterward,” Pami said, “because when you know you can do so much more, it’s a bummer.”
Boris Novachkov (24-3) is coming from an opposite perspective. Ranked as high as third in the country during the season, the sophomore had a two-match losing streak going into the Pac-10 Championships.
Before redshirting in 2009, he was third in the Pac-10 meet and went 0-2 in the NCAA Championships as a freshman in 2008.This year, he goes into the national meet on a winning note.
“We thought it was important for him to go in and wrestle well because he had lost his last couple matches,” Azevedo said, “and he came back and beat those guys at the Pac-10.”
DesRoches (34-8) has never competed in the NCAA Championships, but this is his second trip to the meet.
The sophomore traveled as Pami’s sparring partner to the meet last season — when only Pami and Filip Novachkov (23-6) qualified, and the two have been roommates on road trips this year.
Because of his previous experience and bolstered by the strength in numbers theory, the unseeded 174-pounder is not one of those happy-to-be-there types.
“I’m definitely going for All-America,” DesRoches said. “You just have to have a goal of winning it, and then if that doesn’t happen, then the next goal is the highest you can get.
“It’s definitely better having guys here. You kind of go through everything as a team. You can follow guys that have been here before like Filip, Boris and Chase, and it doesn’t feel too new.”
Fisher (17-6) is the true wildcard of the bunch. The 149-pounder pulled off the upset of the tournament in the Pac-10 meet, pinning No. 1 seed Jason Chamberlain of Boise State in the semifinals.
Fisher could potentially match up with top seed Lance Palmer (27-2) of Ohio State in the second round.
“Nick’s dangerous,” Azevedo said. “He’s just here to see what he can do. He’s excited and young, and he’s a competitor. You never know what a guy like that can pull off.”
If all else goes right and Filip Novachkov can improve on his 1-2 record in the NCAA Championships a season ago, Cal Poly could just have its best national finish in 25 years with four of its five best wrestlers returning next year.
“Sending five guys to nationals, you put five guys in the Pac-10 finals, ranked in the top 20, you have top recruits coming in — the program’s headed in the right direction,” Pami said. “There’s so many signs and elements of that’s going to be great in the years to come. It’s going to be a national championship contending program.”