On a nearly deserted Cal Poly campus Wednesday, brothers Filip and Boris Novachkov paced the damp streets back to Mott Gym with head wrestling coach John Azevedo.
The gray sky had stopped spitting rain just long enough for the grapplers and their coach to walk back to the locker room from the nearby rec center after a private morning workout.
While most everyone else left town for San Luis Obispo’s slippery-when-wet Christmas, the Novachkovs stayed.
Partly, visiting their parents in Maryland just wasn’t very doable, but also, the brothers wanted to remain focused on their most important meet of the regular season.
“It’s the most prestigious college tournament besides nationals,” Boris Novachkov said of the Midlands Championships, which are hosted by Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., and begin Tuesday. “Winning this definitely puts you as one of the guys to win nationals. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
With 2010 national runner-up Chase Pami gone, the Novachkovs lead a group of Mustangs — including NCAA qualifiers Ryan DesRoches, Ryan Smith and Nick Fisher as well as Division I transfers Atticus Disney and Barrett Abel — looking to make championship runs.
Though Pami bucked the trend last year by reaching the national 157-pound final as the No. 7 seed, so much of the national meet rests on high placement, and seedings rest on individual rankings.
There are plenty of opportunities to fall in the national polls. Perhaps the best way to climb them is to take out ranked opponents, and Midlands is one of those limited opportunities where many will be in the same building at the same time.
That’s why there is plenty at stake for the Novachkovs, both of which are ranked in the top 10 in their weight classes, looking to lock up spots in the top four.
“They could both be national champs,” Azevedo said. “They’re both good enough wrestlers. They are some of the best wrestlers I’ve ever coached. Technique, mat awareness, it’s all there. They’re as good as anyone. It’s just in their head and their heart, and how bad do you want it?”
Boris Novachkov (12-1) has had a tremendous start to his junior season.
Consistently in the top 5 of the many national polls at 141 pounds and ranked as high as second, he’s already knocked off No. 1 Zach Bailey of Oklahoma, a 3-1 decision in the Las Vegas Invitational, and his only loss was 3-2 to No. 3 Kellen Russell of Michigan in the Vegas finals.
The key, he said, is learning from his first taste of the NCAA Championships last season, when he worried about living up to his No. 5 seed at 133 pounds instead of focusing on being aggressive.
“The whole tournament, I was just trying not to lose, and I would have really close matches,” Boris Novachkov said. “In the last match of the tournament, I pinned the guy. I just went out, and it was my last match. I felt no pressure and just wrestled. So, that’s what I’m trying to do this year.”
For Filip Novachkov (2-2), a senior who has been to the NCAA championships each of the past two seasons, things haven’t been as simple this year.
After wrestling at 141 pounds last season, Filip came back weighing less than Boris this fall, which made him the ideal candidate to move down to 133 pounds.
The brothers flip-flopped in the lineup, and Filip has had trouble adjusting to his new class. He’s been limited to just four matches this season for failing to make weight.
“I’m still trying to adjust myself into a different lifestyle,” said Filip Novachkov, who essentially never had to cut weight last season. “I eat all the right things all the time and try to work out, run five miles at night every night, just things like that and trying to get in extra workouts.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve had a bad season so far because every single match, I take as much out of it as possible, and being my best at the end in March, that’s what matters.”
Still ranked in the top 10 in the individual polls despite his slow start, this week’s tournament might be the most important to Filip Novachkov, who’ll have to start winning soon to ensure he stays relevant nationally.
Perhaps the fastest start to the year for Cal Poly belongs to 165-pound pin wizard DesRoches, who has a 22-2 record and a team-high 12 falls, more than double his next closest teammate.
DesRoches has quickly jumped as high as 10th in a few polls after finishing second in the Reno Tournament of Champions and third at Las Vegas.
Abel transferred from UC Davis after delivering the Aggies a Pac-10 championship at 147 pounds last season, beating Fisher in the final.
The senior, a hard-luck case brought on when UC Davis dissolved its program, is 14-5 at 157 pounds for the Mustangs.
Disney is 8-5 at heavyweight after sitting out the past two seasons at national power Minnesota.
The former three-time Kansas state high school champion redshirted his first season with the Gophers before sitting out last year recovering from knee surgery. He’s only a sophomore.
“It might take him a year,” Azevedo said. “Who knows? He’s got some time left.”