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Unseeded Stuart of Lehigh keeps his dream alive with quarterfinal victory



The NCAA Championships offer every qualified wrestler a personal dream, a chance at All-American status and a possible national title. For many college wrestlers, this dream was born as a child, and grew throughout their wrestling career. This is the setting where dreams can come true. Coming into the 2001 NCAA Championships quarterfinals, nine unseeded wrestlers were still alive in the winners bracket. The most compelling matchup came at 125 pounds, where both competitors in one of the brackets were unseeded: Mario Stuart of Lehigh and Ahmad Sanders of Central Michigan. Stuart, a freshman, entered the tournament with a losing 8-10 record. He injured his knee in an early season wrestle-off against teammate Terrance Clendenin, and believed his year was over. After a rapid recovery, he was on the mats by mid-January, but had to move up to 133 pounds. After dropping down and beating Clendenin four of five times in wrestle-offs, he finally settled in at 118 pounds for the final run. He came on strong to place second in the EIWA Championships, although his seed was lower and expectations were unknown. Sanders is a senior, with a 24-10 record and a runner-up performance at the MAC Conference tournament. Of the two wrestlers, he was the most experienced and well known. As expected, the match was very competitive. The winner advances to the semifinals and guarantees himself a finish as an All-American, and a placement in the top six. In addition, the gold-medal possibilities remain alive, in spite of the tremendous odds. The match between Stuart and Sanders was wide open. Stuart has some funky technique, learned from his Pennsylvania prep days, and Sanders is a powerful athlete with good upperbody techniques. In this case, these styles led to a wide open match. The first period was wide open, and Stuart grabbed the early edge with a 4-3 lead. Scoring an escape to make it 5-3, Stuart earned the next takedown for a 7-3 edge. After Saunders closed the lead to 7-5, Stuart got the next takedown on a shrug for a 9-5 lead. Sanders immediately escaped, making it 9-6. A key spin behind takedown with two seconds left in the second made it 11-6 period for Stuart. The third period was very active, as Sanders attempted a comeback, and Stuart tried to protect his lead. Stuart escaped for a 12-6 lead, then Sanders quickly took him down for a 12-8 score. Another Stuart escaped was followed by a step-over takedown with 46 seconds left, sealing the victory for Stuart. Sanders tried for a throw and Stuart countered for a last second takedown, and a 17-9 major decision. The kid who thought his season had been over, then had to overcome early losses and a change in weight class had emerged as a semifinalist. The large Lehigh contingent celebrated with joy, as an unexpected new star had been born in his first NCAA experience. "In the early wrestle-off, he dislocated his knee," said Lehigh coach Greg Strobel. "He really thought his season was over. I told him that he'd be back by January 7th. He actually made his comeback on January 12. "I didn't think I'd be back this season, let alone be in the semifinals of the nationals," said Stuart. "Starting out at 133 pounds really helped me. Wrestling the heavier guys got me in better shape. Going seven minutes with those big guys helped me get the conditioning back." The Lehigh coaches were impressed by the energy and spirit of this young man, who attended local Liberty High School in Bethlehem. "He's a goer," said assistant coach Kerry McCoy. "He gets up for every match and goes for it." "He has a lot of mental toughness," said Strobel. "He also has some slick move. He is a great competitor. I consider him a low maintaince wrestler. He's always ready to wrestle. He gets real psyched up for every match." "I didn't really think I would be ready for the NCAA Championships," said Stuart. "I did think my shape would help me here. If I can break the opponent in the second or third period, I can win. These guys have been dropping weight all season, and I just got down to this class." His victory over Sanders made him an All-American, something that Stuart was just realizing when the match was over. "I'm an All-American. I never thought I would be in this position. I'm just happy to be here." It did not surprise his coach, Greg Strobel, who was overjoyed by his success at the big show. "People asked me if I was surprised," said Strobel. "I don't think so. He was not even ranked at the Easterns when he came back from the injury. I figured he is coming on right now. He's only wrestled a half a season. He is getting better every single match." Stuart will have to improve even more for his next match, against No. 1 seed and former NCAA champion Stephen Abas of Fresno State. "He is an awesome wrestler," said Stuart of Abas. "He's been the NCAA champion and wrestled on the Olympic ladder. I'm a freshman who can maybe show him a few things. I just want to wrestle my best." No matter what happens from now on, Mario Stuart has made his mark on college wrestling. He is an All-American. Truly dreams can come true, even for unseeded athletes with a losing record.
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