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|FEATURE: Super freshman Dustin Schlatter starts his NCAA Tournament career with a major decision win|
By Gary Abbott USA Wrestling
There are outstanding freshmen wrestlers in college wrestling every year. And then there are special freshmen, those who make even the most seasoned coaches shake their heads with wonder.
One such special freshman is Dustin Schlatter of the Univ. of Minnesota, the No. 1 seed at 149 pounds. It is very rare for any freshman, especially a true freshman, to earn a top seed at the NCAA Championships. But like every other freshman at the championships this year, Schlatter has never competed in this tournament, and will have to break the ice with his first match in the morning session.
Minnesota assistant coach Marty Morgan is just not very worried about Schlatter facing some of the challenges that freshmen must deal with in their first NCAA Tournament.
"I am not concerned, like I was last year with Roger Kish or C.P. Schlatter last year," said Morgan. "That is one cool-headed kid. He is all about business. He is just so relaxed. He is something different than the other greats we have had."
Morgan and the coaching staff at Minnesota realized Schlatter was "extra, extra special" once the competition schedule began, and Schlatter showed his stuff in actual matches.
"It took the competition to show what he has," said Morgan. "In the beginning of the season, you'd watch him and know he is doing well. After the first few home duals in December, you knew he was for real."
Schlatter comes into the tournament with a 37-1 record, losing an early season bout to Central Michigan's Mark DiSalvo in November, 1-0. Later in the season, Schlatter had another chance to face DiSalvo and beat him in the rematch, 5-1.
"At the time, we chose having them both on their feet, thinking he'd get a takedown," said Morgan of the first match. "He didn't get the takedown. He lost on a bad call by us. The round before that, he let the guy ride him for a few minutes, so we chose to be up. Now, you go back, and he could be undefeated now. Maybe that defeat takes the pressure off him. Look at how he has been doing.
Schlatter has twice defeated returning NCAA champion Zack Esposito of Oklahoma State. The first match was a wild one-point victory by Schlatter, 8-7 at the National Duals. The second time, at the ESPNU Double Sport Classic in Oklahoma City, Schlatter opened it up for an 11-2 major decision against Esposito. This kind of performance is just not expected from true freshmen facing talented and experienced national champions.
"The first match was a show," said Morgan. "This guy can wrestle. Both of them are such phenomenal wrestlers. They were both moving like cats in that first match. In the second match, when he came off the mat, you would think he was a seasoned veteran. Dustin has great workout partners every day, Luke Becker, Jared Lawrence, his brother C.P. and others."
There are no guarantees in wrestling, but if Schlatter ends up being as special as he has shown is possible, each NCAA Tournament will be part of the legacy he leaves behind for the sport. The 2006 NCAA meet in Oklahoma City will always be his first time on the big stage, and his first opportunity to make his mark.
His first NCAA match was against Anthony Baza of Cal-State Bakersfield. Schlatter scored a quick spin-behind takedown to start the match, then scored a bar arm tilt for three back points and a 5-0 lead. He was able to ride Baza out fairly easily in the first period. In the second, Schlatter was down, and Baza, working with legs, kept Schlatter down for a good while, before Schlatter got the standup escape to make the score 6-0. No takedown was scored before the second period ended. In the third period, Baza was on top, and rode Schlatter with legs for a good portion of the period, eliminating the possibility for riding time. Schlatter scored a reversal in the closing seconds of the period for a major 8-0 decision, his first NCAA Tournament victory.
Sitting alongside the mat watching him wrestle was 2004 Olympic silver medalist Stephen Abas, who won three NCAA titles for Fresno State and knows a little about the special pressure of this tournament. Abas was sitting next to Carl Adams, the coach at Boston Univ. and a two-time NCAA champion at Iowa State in the 1970s.
"It is about his mental attitude," said Abas during the bout. "He stays positive. He shows no fear. In this tournament, everybody turns it up. Let's see how he does here where it counts."
Both Abas and Adams enjoyed watching Schlatter's debut and were impressed with the talent he displayed.
"It looked easy. It was a dominant performance," said Abas.
Immediately after his win, Schlatter turned to watch two of his teammates, who were also wrestling at the same time, Manuel Rivera at 141 pounds and Mack Reiter at 133 pounds. Reiter scored a pin in the first period, and Schlatter congratulated him as he came off the mat.
Schlatter was relaxed and spoke in calm tones with the media after his bout was over.
"I have been looking forward to this for a long time, especially all this year," said Schlatter of his first NCAA Tournament win. "I didn't wrestle my best. I was a little flat. But it was my first NCAA match. I did what I had to do at the end, to get the bonus points for the team."
Schlatter did realize that wrestling in the NCAAs was a new experience, and something that he gave both respect and appreciation.
"It's different. The atmosphere here is incredible. It is amazing to be here with all of these great wrestlers," said Schlatter.
Schlatter understands the importance of the team performance at this event, and his role as one of the wrestlers on the nation's top-ranked team.
"Our team is coming together great. We work great together. It is the least we can do, sticking around to support each other. It would be amazing to win an individual title for myself. But it would also be amazing to win this as a team," he said. "I like the way we train as a team. We peak at the right time, and don't burn out."
Schlatter gave credit to his older brother C.P., who is also competing here for Minnesota, as well as the rest of the team and coaches, for helping him make the difficult transition from high school to college wrestling.
"The big thing was that my brother would come home and train with me," said Schlatter. "He gave me a heads-up about college wrestling. I also came up to Minnesota and worked out over the summer," he said.
Dustin believes that both he and C.P. have benefited from them both competing on the same team. C.P. was the Big Ten champion at 157 pounds this year, and is seeded No. 2 in the tournament.
"It has helped us both," said Schlatter. "We are training for each other as friends, and feeding off our emotions is huge."
Schlatter has learned that he needed to expand his repertoire in college in order to compete at this level.
"I have added stuff," said Schlatter. "The stuff you use in high school does not necessarily work here. The low percentage moves do not work here. Hand fighting, working on the top and bottom, are things I've worked on. A lot of small details makes all the difference."
Schlatter planned to go back to the hotel, perhaps take a nap, and prepare for his second NCAA bout this evening, when he will face Ryan Osgood of Northern Iowa. As much as he feels good about his chances this weekend, Schlatter knows he must earn everything he gets at this tournament.
"I have confidence. I know I can beat them. I have done that before. But here, it is anybody's game. Anybody can get hot and win here. I am the first seed, but I am definitely not national champion yet, by no means," said Schlatter.