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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Column: A chance to shine

Not much has come easy for the UC Davis wrestling team this season.

The youthful Aggie squad (3-11, 1-6 Pacific-10 Conference) has endured injuries. It’s fought through sicknesses. It’s faced four teams currently ranked in the top 20 (No. 4 Oklahoma State, No. 11 Boise State, No. 15 Oregon State and No. 20 Cal Poly).

“We knew we were going to have five weights that were brand new,” coach Lennie Zalesky said. “Brandon [Low] was out for most of the season. Barrett [Abel] was out for most of the year. It took us awhile to get going.

“Also, we wrestled the toughest schedule in the history of UC Davis. So the combination of being young, our good guys being hurt and the tough schedule wasn’t very good.”

Starting Friday, all can be forgotten.

The Aggies can redeem themselves with a good performance at the Pac-10 Tournament, which will be held this year at the Pavilion.

“As a team, we didn’t do well this season,” junior heavyweight Ricky Alcala said. “That doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is the conference tournament.”

For Alcala, Low and Abel, this will most likely not be the last competition of the year. All three are good bets to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

For the rest of the squad, however, this is a final chance to end a tough season on a positive note.

This won’t be easy, though, as the Aggies will compete against some of the best teams in the nation.

“The Pac-10 is possibly the toughest it’s ever been and one of the toughest in the nation at this time,” said senior Bryan Osuna. “I can’t think of another year you’ve been able to say that.”

To deal with this, some of the Aggies are taking different approaches going into the league tournament. For Alcala, it’s one of blocking out all distractions and emphasizing focus.

“I feel like there’s no difference,” Alcala said. “I feel like I perform the same everywhere.”

However, Alcala then thought about it for a second and acknowledged the difficulties that come with hosting a tournament of this magnitude.

“There might be a little more pressure, though, because people tell you they’re going to be there to watch you,” Alcala said.

Still, this could be a good thing for the Aggies.

“It gives you a little more motivation to practice and prepare for this tournament at higher level than you normally would,” Alcala said.

Regardless of UC Davis’ approach to this weekend, the fact remains that the competition will be fierce.

However, top-notch opponents and the opportunity to perform on this stage will only benefit the large group of freshmen and sophomores, whether they’re on the mat or off.

“All of our young guys are competing at this level now,” Osuna said. “It’s only going to pay off later.”

The advantages of hosting the Pac-10 Tournament go far beyond just helping the younger guys, though.

It’s convenient. Alcala’s three-minute walk from where he lives at the Colleges at La Rue will benefit him. The fact the Aggies train on the upper concourse of the Pavilion can only help. Plus, it allows the only two seniors on the squad to go out with a chance to perform at home.

However, it’s also big for the future of UC Davis wrestling. UC Davis can present its facilities to visiting schools and show some of the more elite programs what Aggie wrestling is all about.

“It’s a great recruiting tool,” said senior Alex Darkhovsky. “It gives the school more recognition. More people will visit to watch. This will open local wrestlers’ eyes to wrestle in college and hopefully here.”

Zalesky puts it more simply.

“I think this facility is one of the best to host this in the nation,” Zalesky said.

For senior like Darkhovsky, putting it all out there for the final matches of his career is what’s important to him.

“[Hosting] is definitely kind of symbolic and of value to me,” Darkhovsky said. “It’s a great way to go out with a bang. I can see myself having one of the best performances of my life.”

MAX ROSENBLUM wants you to know the Pac-10 Championships are Friday and Saturday. E-mail him at sports@theaggie.org if you’re going to see him there.

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