After working four years for the opportunity, Kyle Springer figures he has nothing to lose.
The Eastern Michigan senior from Davenport Assumption is among four Quad-City area wrestlers who begin competition today at the NCAA Wrestling Championships in Cleveland, and no wrestler in the field may have a bigger initial test than Springer.
In today’s 11 a.m. first round, Springer faces top-seeded 149-pounder Zain Retherford of Penn State, a two-time defending national champion who has won his last 89 matches, including the 26 he has wrestled this season.
"The pressure, it’s all on him," Springer said. "He’s the one who is trying to win a third national title. He’s the one with the long win streak. Nobody on the outside has expectations for me, and that’s fine. I can go out and compete, let it fly and see what happens."
Springer knows what he is getting into.
Long before he finished as the runner-up at the Mid-American Conference Championships earlier this month, Springer wrestled Retherford at the Keystone Classic.
Retherford recorded one of his 16 pins this season in that mid-November match in Philadelphia, dropping Springer in 2 minutes, 56 seconds, an experience he considers helpful heading into today’s match.
"I know where his strengths are and have a good idea of why he has accomplished what he has," Springer said. "It helps to have wrestled him before. The plan, like always, is to try to keep on my feet and keep attacking."
As a team, Eastern Michigan has focused on offensive pace this season. That style matches Springer's preference and is reflected in the bonus points he has scored in 15 of his 21 victories this season.
"It's about bringing a more offensive mindset into every match, pushing the pace and being stronger later in matches," Springer said. "It's the way I've always enjoyed competing."
Springer also welcomes the chance to compete on college wrestling’s biggest stage, something he shares with other Quad-City area wrestlers in the field.
The NCAA experience will be the third for Missouri senior Barlow McGhee of Rock Island, who joins Northern Iowa sophomore Jay Schwarm of Bettendorf in the same quadrant of the bracket at 125 pounds.
Schwarm, seeded 16th with a 25-10 record, is one of five seeded entries among Northern Iowa’s six qualifiers. He faces Drew Mattin of Michigan in his first match of the tournament.
"I’m at a weight where anything can happen. That’s an exciting thing," said Schwarm, who will be competing in his first NCAA meet, as will Iowa 184-pound junior Mitch Bowman, a North Scott graduate.
McGhee, who finished one win shy of all-American status in his first NCAA experience two years ago, brings a 15-11 record into his final collegiate meet following what he labels "an up and down year" that he hopes to end on a high note.
"I’ve got it together now, and this week, it’s all about confidence," McGhee said. "I feel like I’m where I need to be. Everybody talks about this being an open weight, one that anybody can win. Now, it’s a matter of getting it done."
McGhee faces eighth-seeded Ethan Lizak of Minnesota in his first match today, and the chance to compete for a national championship during the final weekend of his collegiate career is something he doesn’t minimize.
"It means a lot to me. It’s an opportunity I don’t take for granted, a chance to be among the best in the country," McGhee said. "I’m putting everything I have into this. Hopefully, all-American when it’s done; that’s the goal."
Like McGhee’s Missouri team, Bowman is part of a team that qualified nine wrestlers for the NCAA Championships.
And like McGhee, Bowman expects to do what he can to help his team factor into the team trophy chase.
"We’re out there for each other, and to put ourselves in a position to do anything as a team, we need to do our best individually," Bowman said. "That’s where it starts, taking care of what I can take care of in my match and being there to support the rest of my teammates."
Bowman brings a 12-11 record into his NCAA debut, facing 15th-seeded Canten Marriott of Missouri in the opening round.
The experience he has gained while facing 11 rated opponents this season has benefited Bowman, who avenged an earlier 4-0 loss to ninth-rated Nick Gravina of Rutgers with a 6-4 overtime win during the recent Big Ten Championships.
"I’ve learned a lot this year, and the thing now is to carry that over and make it work for me this week," Bowman said. "It’s a great opportunity in front of me, something a lot of wrestlers never get to experience. I’m ready for it. My body feels good. My mind is where it needs to be focused on that first match, and then I’ll be ready to go from there."
Springer appreciates that, too.
"The first match is the starting point. This week is about being ready to compete every time you have the chance to step on the mat," he said. "I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been wrestling for 14 years now, and this is why you do what you do, to get this type of a chance. It’s going to be great."