by Jeremy Acree
Josh Statum had pictured his senior night a little differently. He imagined when he was honored, just before the Feb. 6 match in the Maclellan Gymnasium, Cody Cleveland and Joey Knox would be there with him, in sweats and a singlet, preparing for their final match in Chattanooga.
Cleveland and Knox will be there and be honored as seniors, but they will be in street clothes, ready to cheer from the bleachers.
On a team without designated captains, Statum, Cleveland and Knox had established themselves as the leaders of the Chattanooga wrestling team. Cleveland and Knox had each been to the NCAA Tournament the previous two seasons.
Statum finished second in the Southern Conference in 2009 and after being beaten in the wrestle-offs at his normal 125 class by Demetrius Johnson, agreed to move up a weight class at the start of this season to help out the team.
Each got off to a good start in 2009-10, led by Cleveland who was 8-0 and ranked No. 10 in the nation. Knox faired well at the Indiana Duels and Statum finished a strong eighth at the Hokie Open. That was November.
Since December, Statum has been the only one of the three to see any action. Knox and Cleveland were lost to shoulder and knee injuries, respectively, before Southern Conference action began.
That left Statum as the only senior consistently in the lineup. It also made him the unquestioned leader at practice, with Knox and Cleveland spending their time in the training room. He was the one giving the pick-me-ups at grueling 6 a.m. workouts and giving the slap on the behind when cutting weight got tough.
"I was expecting me, Cody and Joey being in the lineup and making the NCAA [Tournament]," Statum said. "I was full-on expecting us three to be right there working together. It's not too much of a burden, but yea, you can feel [the pressure]."
First year coach Heath Eslinger is proud of the way Statum has handled the situation.
"Josh Statum has emerged as a premier leader on our team," Eslinger said. "He has done a great job of doing every single thing we need him to do in the way we need him to do it. Whether we ask him to come in on a Sunday at 3:30 with coach [Rocco] Mansueto to drill or an early morning workout that you're not really awake for, he's gone in there with a great attitude."
Because it is his first season at the helm, this will be the first senior class Eslinger will let go. Knox and Cleveland are applying for medical redshirts in hopes of getting another year of eligibility, but Statum will not be back on the mat in the fall.
He hopes to get his teaching degree after a fifth year of school and return home to Homewood, Ala., to teach and coach. Eslinger hopes Statum will take away much more than wrestling skills when he leaves UTC.
"My focus isn't wrestling," Eslinger says. "My focus is life. I want guys who leave here to be good husbands and good fathers and good citizens who are doing the right things.
"You're job is to act like a man and a person of character. We literally talk about that on a daily basis."
When Statum is honored before his last match at UTC, he will be taking away more than accomplishments he earned through athletics.
"As an individual, going through four years of wrestling, that has prepared me for life," Statum said. "Wrestling's taught me to be disciplined enough to just do what has got to be done."
For now, the goals are still focused around wrestling. After taking on Northern Iowa and Appalachian State Saturday, the Mocs have trips to Oklahoma and the Virginia Military Institute. Then comes the chance to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament by winning the Southern Conference Tournament.
"We put down goals on index cards at the beginning of the year," Statum said. "Mine were win conference, and do some damage in the NCAAs. I know we've got five more weeks left.
"The closer it gets the more I get pumped about it."
Statum may not have Cleveland or Knox by his side, but his goals - in wrestling and in life - are still very much within reach.