Confidence lifts ODU's Mecate to elite status in wrestling

NORFOLK — Old Dominion's Chris Mecate is a more technically proficient and polished wrestler than even a few months ago. But his greatest improvement is in areas no one sees.

Mecate's confidence and poise are catching up to his physical ability, placing him among the top competitors in the nation at 141 pounds.

"Last year, everybody told me I was a good wrestler and I thought I was, but I don't know if I really, truly believed it," Mecate said. "Now, I know every time I step on the mat, I don't expect to lose, no matter who I'm wrestling."

Mecate (pronounced meh-KOT-ee) and the Monarchs prepare for this weekend's Virginia Duals at the Hampton Coliseum after a solid performance at the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tenn.

ODU finished 10th out of 34 teams, and Mecate finished third, defeating All-Americans Evan Henderson of North Carolina and Chris Dardanes from Minnesota on the same day.

Mecate went 3-1 in Chattanooga, defeating three nationally ranked wrestlers and improving to 16-4 this season. His only loss was to third-ranked Zain Retherford of Penn State, the eventual champ. Last week's performance moved him to fourth in the latest national rankings.

"He had big goals last year, but he didn't believe he could do it," ODU coach Steve Martin said. "He had to prove to himself that he could beat guys like Henderson."

Indeed, Mecate lost twice to Henderson earlier this season, at the season-opening Hokie Duals and one week later at N.C. State's Wolfpack Open. He has defeated four nationally ranked wrestlers and has no bad losses. His only other loss was to Virginia Tech All-American Devin Carter, who suffered a knee injury last month and is sidelined for the remainder of the season.

"The coaches always talk about being consistent," Mecate said. "No highs or lows, not losing to guys I shouldn't lose to. I try to take the same approach and wrestle everybody the same, no matter if a guy is ranked (number) one or 100."

Mecate, a redshirt sophomore from Highland, Calif., had what many would label an outstanding redshirt freshman year: 37-9 overall record, Colonial Athletic Association champion, NCAA qualifier. But he called his 1-2 performance at the NCAA championships "a setback" and worked relentlessly last summer and fall.

From the technique side, he increased his takedown percentage when he gets to opponents' legs, a deficiency last season. From the bottom position, he is more patient and poised on escape attempts. He said that too often he freaked out or froze against experienced, savvy opponents if he was unable to escape quickly.

Mecate used to work himself into a frenzy before matches. Now, he calmly prepares and requires little input. He attempts to remove the mental clutter and enters matches with just a couple of things on his mind, related to his own strategy or perhaps an opponent's signature move or tendency.

"I do better when I don't overthink," he said. "Just go out there and get after it."

He refers to his style as a "technical brawler."

"Before, I was too worried about technique and not as much about fighting," he said. "There are plenty of guys that are technical, but if you're not in there fighting, you can let your opponent dictate the match."

Martin said that Mecate can be a punishing wrestler, working over opponents' shoulders. He said at times the coaches have to get him to dial back the punishment and to simply wrestle for position and points.

Mecate also is wiser about nutrition and taking care of himself. His mother is a dietitian and nutritionist, so he asked her to show him how to prepare a few meals, though he said roommate Buddy Scarborough, a 125-pounder, is a decent cook. His diet now includes more fish and fresh vegetables.

"I can't eat ramen all the time like other college kids," he joked.

Mecate's aim is the same as most Division I college wrestlers': Qualify for the NCAAs; make a run; get to the top of the podium. The top six wrestlers at each weight at the NCAA meet make the podium and are All-Americans.

"That's always been my goal," he said, "but now I know it's there for the taking. I know it's an in-my-grasp kind of thing."

The NCAA meet is 10 weeks away, and plenty of challenges await Mecate and the Monarchs. For example, if ODU gets past Lock Haven in Friday's first round of the Duals, No. 14 Edinboro awaits that afternoon. For Mecate, that means a match against No.1-ranked Mitchell Port, an opportunity he relishes.

He won't predict victory against Port, or anyone for that matter. He expects to win, but if he doesn't it's not because he's outclassed or unprepared. He hasn't seen anyone that he doesn't think he can beat. He intends to make the most of the journey — every drill, every practice, every match.

"I just want to take it one match at a time, whoever I'm out there against," he said. "The whole thing about not thinking too far ahead. If I do that, the results will come."

Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.

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