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Top coaches talk about surpassing expectations at annual NCAA press conference



It's the day before the NCAA Div. I Championships, and all of the coaches in the tournament attend a coaches meeting about the tournament. After it ends, a few selected coaches from the leading contenders attend an annual press conference.

The questions are often the same, and for many years, the coaches have also been from many of the same programs. Sometimes, it becomes a contest about who can downplay expectations and deflect pressure to other teams.

This year, the cast of coaches was bigger than other times. In fact, the coaches from the top six teams in the InterMat/NWCA pre-tournament rankings were all there, plus Lehigh coach Greg Strobel, whose team sits at No. 13.

There were a few light moments, such as Oklahoma State coach John Smith telling about his team's workout at his high school in Del City, Okla., just a few miles away. Much of the talk had to do with the statue of Smith at his high school, and what his athletes thought of it. Smith said the statue made him look skinny. "When I looked at it," said Smith of the statue, "they cheated on my arms. I thought they were bigger than that."

Jack Spates of Oklahoma told a tale about how his father, who was ill this year and passed away, had asked how his team did at the National tournament. Spates had to come up with an answer, because his dad wanted details. So Spates had Oklahoma winning with 112 points, Oklahoma State with 110 points and Minnesota with 104 points. "I would appreciate if you guys cooperate," said Spates.

Much of the talk had to do with Minnesota and Oklahoma State, the favorites to win, along with some of the individual athletes in the tournament. We will list the coach quotes by their current ranking going in.

J Robinson, Univ. of Minnesota (ranked No. 1)
"We are happy to be here. We are happy to be in the position we are in. We started the year off with a young team. He had high expectations and the team progressed. The team has wrestled well. We are where we expect to be."

(about his team's approach to other teams)
"We don't look at that. We focus on what we need to do to win. We have a formula. It is what we can control. The other teams, we can't control. We don't factor in the other teams. We've have some good performances and we have built confidence. We came in saying we could be in the race. But they thought the coach was just saying that. We every little step, they believed more. This team now has a chance to do something special."

(were any of your athletes a surprise?)
"All of them. Last year, we had injuries and adversity all year. A lot of this team had success young. They won in high school. They believe they can do these things. And they have won this year. The dynamics of what is going on here has really helped. What they are is a team, and that is good."

(on the Oklahoma home field advantage)
"I don't look at the home field advantage. A lot of times, we wrestle better away. The pressure is off. We have always wrestled better on the road. We got to come here to this arena a month ago. It isn't new for us here. They know what is expected of them. We limit it to what we can control. The formula we have had all year, we need to stick to it. We can't deviate from it."

John Smith, Oklahoma State Univ. (ranked No. 2)
"It is exciting to me. I am six miles from where I grew up. We had practice at Del City High School this morning. They saw old pictures of me there and kind of made fun of me. They looked at that statue, and saw how skinny I was. It was fun. We are excited and looking forward to it. We probably wrestled our best all year at the Big 12 Tournament. I believe we will wrestle our best all year at this NCAA Championships."

(on coming in as an underdog)
"We have played different roles over the years. It doesn't matter if we are the favorite or the underdogs. There are some distractions for the team, if you are favorites or underdogs. Bottom line. We have a team that can win the national championships. It is simple. We need to wrestle our very best on these three days."

(on the role of his unseeded wrestlers)
"I don't see them playing a role different than anybody else. We have had guys who are unranked or low seeds come in and win the national championship. It didn't happen years ago. It happened in the last few years. They have an opportunity to be a national champion or an All-American. Both guys have tough draws. They look forward to it. They could play a big role. Championships are won on the combination of the wrestlers you bring here. You have an idea how it might go. In the end, I like these surprises. They can make a difference in the end."

(about Johny Hendricks)
"He has been consistent all year. He had a few matches he wasn't pleased with. But his training and competition has been consistent. He has been tested a few times. I believe the test he had at the Big 12 will make a difference for him this week. He is excited being here, with his family being from here. He is excited. If you know him, he shows that excitement in every way."

Joe McFarland, Univ. of Michigan (ranked No. 3)

"We had a tremendous season. We won the Big Ten this year. We didn't have a good Big Ten tournament. I am hoping to get the clunker out of the way and the guys step up to the challenge. Hopefully we have gotten prepared to be where we need to be."

(about trying to get his team back to the No. 2 finish of last year)
"Everybody talks about Oklahoma State and Minnesota, and rightfully so. We want to be one of the teams in the hunt. We need to put together a great tournament. We need to do it in the championship brackets and the consolation brackets. Hopefully, we can do the things we need to do and hope some of the other teams help out, also."

(about Eric Tannenbaum)
"He has not been consistent. But if you look at his career, even as a freshman, he has always been one to step up at the big events. He seems upbeat and focused. We will need him as a team for us to reach our goals."

Mark Johnson, Univ. of Illinois (ranked No. 4)
"We need all 10 guys to do well. We have had seven NCAA champions recently. Only one of them won both the Big 10 and the NCAAs the same year. We think it is a new ballgame when we come here."

Mark Manning, Univ. of Nebraska (ranked No. 5)
"We have four freshmen in the tournament. We have a young team. We have two seniors. Our season has gone well. We came together. We put things together. Our unity carried us through some dual meets. We have only four ranked wrestlers. It is good to be here, and to have nine wrestlers."

(on his four freshmen in their first NCAA meet)
"We have a young team in many aspects. We have to go out and wrestle. These four guys wrestle relaxed. They don't get too uptight. The entire team has done that all year. They might make mistakes, but they don't beat themselves. We are a young team and not expected to do much. We look to perform here. You only have four years in a career. You have to go out there and go for it."

Jack Spates, Univ. of Oklahoma (ranked No. 6)

"We are excited to be here, and excited about the team we have here."

(on whether this year's team can beat expectations, like his recent OU teams at the NCAA meet)
"I think so. We train to peak at this time. All of our training, our focus, our tapering, is to wrestle here. I like the way we wrestled at the Big 12 Tournament."

(on Wes Roberts, a local athlete competing in his home area)
"It is absolutely awesome for Wes. It seems he's injured every week in his career. He got a sixth year. His injuries have affected his wrestling. He has had to deal with what he could or couldn't do in his training. At the Big 12, he let it loose. He forgot about what he couldn't or could do. He wrestled tough."

Greg Strobel, Lehigh Univ. (ranked No. 13)
"We have four guys who have been here four times, and we have five new guys. This is a record for Lehigh, the first time we have nine qualifiers. I am excited about the competition and am pleased with ESPN and their plans for the live coverage."

(about senior Troy Letters)
"Like I told the media, the word is 'agonizing' He tore his disc in December. It's healed. But he is still dealing with it some. And it affected him mentally. He is not used to losing twice in the same tournament. That has rarely happened to him ever. It will be interesting to see how he does here. He didn't have a good EIWA tournament, but he has had great workouts since then."

(comparing Letters' physical challenges to those of former star Jon Trenge)
"Jon had a detached retina. It changed a career for him. For Troy, it has been just one year, and actually for a few months. Jon went through a lot of trials to get where he did. He did a good job getting where he did."

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