Injury aside, Siebert ready for NCAA meet

CHAMPAIGN – One of Eric Siebert's theories will be tested this weekend in the NCAA wrestling championships in Cleveland.

"I've always felt mental health was the key to success in athletics," the University of Illinois senior said. "I think we're all relaxed, refreshed and mentally healthy for this meet."

The nation's No. 1-ranked 150-pounder will have to rely on his mental ability even more than the other eight UI NCAA qualifiers. The NCAA meet gets under way Thursday at Cleveland State University's Convocation Center, with finals taking place Saturday night.

Siebert's been held out of practice since suffering a rib injury in the Big Ten championships March 7-8. A medical forfeit in the semifinal round, he had to settle for sixth place in the Big Ten meet.

He's going to wrestle at the NCAAs, though. It will mark his fourth consecutive appearance at nationals.

"I'm looking forward to the meet despite the injury," Siebert said. "I can't prepare myself physically so I'm working even harder on my mental preparation. I know I'm going to have to be mentally prepared to fight through the pain.

"I'm looking at it as a mind-over-matter process. This injury is just a little adversity I'm looking forward to overcoming."

Sixth-year Illini coach Mark Johnson said this year's team is in a better frame of mind than last year's. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Illini finished a disappointing ninth at the NCAA meet. Johnson was hoping for at least a fourth-place finish.

"We're using last year's experience to our advantage this season," Johnson said. "For one thing, I'm coaching more by feel this year. That's one of the thing's I learned from (longtime Iowa coach) Dan Gable.

"I'm giving wrestlers more individual attention rather than treating everyone the same. I also may have overworked the kids going into the NCAA meet last year, and that's why they were a little flat. There also was a lot of pressure on us last year that shouldn't be there this year."

There is optimism for the future as well as this year's meet with six freshman and sophomore qualifiers along with seniors Siebert and No.1-ranked 177-pounder Jevon Herman.

"This has been an interesting group," Johnson said. "We've had our ups and downs. While we were sixth in the Big Ten, we might have finished as high as fourth if Siebert hadn't been injured."

Only once has the UI qualified more than nine wrestlers for the NCAAs (10 in 1996). Eight Illini advanced last season.

"We're very optimistic going into the meet," Johnson said. "We want the young kids to feel good about the experience. This is the fun time of the year for all of us. I just wish I was wrestling."

Herman said he has mixed emotions going into the tourney.

"It's a weird feeling knowing my season and my (college) career is coming to an end," the Big Ten runner-up said. "It's hard to put that out of my mind, but I know I have to do it until the tourney is over. This is the big show. I have the experience. It's just a matter of relaxing and doing the job."

Herman said the approach going into Cleveland should help the Illini.

"We had a great team last year," Herman said. "We went into the tourney real confident. We had the ability to finish in the top three, but we got a little burned out before the tourney.

"Coach Johnson has taken a lot more of a laid-back approach this year to let people heal up for the tourney.

"I feel pretty fresh both mentally and physically. I'm real excited. I just want to go out and have some fun."

Redshirt freshman Adam Tirapelle is one of the youngsters looking forward to his first NCAA tournament experience. He finished fourth in the 142-pound class in the Big Ten meet.

"I went to the NCAA meet (as a spectator) last year with my dad and another coach," the native of Clovis, Calif., said. "It's the greatest thing I'd ever seen as far as fans and overall excitement is concerned.

"I'm real excited about going back this year as a participant. I hope I'm ready to go. I just want to go out and do what I do every day in practice and wrestle like it was just another home meet."

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