More than 1,500 yearning fans heard the announcement they’d been waiting for: No. 1 vs. No. 2.
“At Oklahoma State, it was intense,” said John Azevedo, head coach of the Cal Poly wrestling team. “They make the announcement, ‘No. 1 and 2,’ and their fans are going wild.”
But neither his second-ranked counterpart nor the rabid throng of onlookers in Stillwater, Okla. on Feb. 16 could phase Cal Poly’s Chad Mendes, the top-ranked 141-pounder in the country.
After twice trailing, at 2-1 and then 3-2, Mendes took down Nathan Morgan with 10 seconds left in the match to claim a 4-3 victory.
It kept his dual record unblemished, at 22-0 heading into the Pac-10 Conference Championships.
“He was very calm, very poised and pulled out the match,” Azevedo said.
Such composure has been a staple this season from the senior from Hanford who, on Dec. 8, pinned defending national champion Minnesota’s Manuel Rivera, then the No. 3 grappler in his class, in just a minute and 34 seconds.
Now, Mendes, the eighth Mustang to go undefeated in single-season dual action, has his sights set on becoming Cal Poly’s first national champion since Mark DiGirolamo accomplished the feat at 118 pounds in 1976.
As the first Cal Poly wrestler to be slotted No. 1 in 28 years, Mendes says any outside pressure stemming from being bestowed the highest assessment doesn’t affect his day-to-day approach.
“It doesn’t really bother me too much,” Mendes said. “I’ve always been really close to being at the top, but just have never been quite there. I’m actually just being in the moment, taking this all in and liking it.”
A Pac-10 champion in 2006, Mendes cited Cal State Fullerton junior Teddy Astorga, Arizona State freshman Chris Drouin and Boise State freshman Eli Hutchinson among those who might give him the most trouble at the conference championships.
“We’ve been training to win the Pac-10,” Mendes said of his Mustangs (5-8, 4-4 Pac-10), who figure to also be led by sophomore Chase Pami (21-4), now No. 11 at 157. “If everyone does a little better than expected to do in rankings, we can win this, and a lot of the guys on the team are starting to know it, and it’s starting to show.”
Following the Pac-10 finals, held in Eugene, Ore. beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday and going through Monday, Mendes will turn his attention to the NCAA Championships, held in St. Louis March 20 to 22.
“There are guys out there I haven’t wrestled,” Mendes said. “I sometimes wonder about that, but it’s not something I worry about. I’ve just got to keep my eyes on the title. I can’t let that kind of stuff hold me back or scare me.”
Azevedo doesn’t seem worried, either.
“Some kids, if they lose early in the season, it sometimes relieves or releases the pressure of being undefeated,” he said. “I’ve seen that, where, ‘OK, I’ve lost and I’m not thinking about that anymore,’ but I think as far as Chad is concerned, and we’re concerned, the goal is to go undefeated and be a national champion.”
Regardless of what transpires at the end of his pursuit of perfection, Mendes likely won’t forget the simplest reason for his commitment to the sport: the fun of it.
“It’s been fine,” he said. “Some people keep asking, ‘Is it going to get to you?’ and that kind of stuff, but it doesn’t bug me. This thing is fun and it doesn’t get to me. It’s all fun to me.”