There's never been an easy day as a Division I wrestler for Zack Strickland. He never expected one.
There were days in high school where he knew he could overwhelm an opponent in a dual meet and he could kind of coast. Since the Muncy graduate arrived at Appalachian State University nearly two years ago, there's no chance to coast.
It's what feeds the redshirt freshman, though. He loves the challenge collegiate wrestling poses. Today, he'll get his biggest challenge when he wrestles in his first NCAA tournament.
Zack Strickland qualfied for the NCAA?tournament by finishing second at the Southern Conference tournament.
Strickland, a 2011 PIAA champion, faces Rutgers' Nick Visicaro in the first round of the 165-pound tournament. He goes into the tournament unseeded with a 23-11 record. And coming off a second-place finish at the Southern Conference tournament, Strickland has also won 16 of his last 20 matches.
Strickland is one of three District 4 alumni to wrestle in this weekend's Division I national tournament. Lewisburg graduate Nate Brown of Lehigh is the ninth seed in the 174-pound bracket. Line Mountain's Jon Fausey of Virginia is also in the 174-pound bracket. Lock Haven's Dan Neff (141 pounds), Fred Garcia (184) and Bucknell's Joe Stolfi (285) are also competing.
"This is what we train for," Strickland said earlier this week. "The whole six or seven months we work, this is what it's all for. I've gotten here to the big stage, now I have to stay focused."
Staying focused shouldn't be a problem. He said he feels refreshed, both mentally and physically. After the grind January and February can be on collegiate wrestlers, Appalachian State has had just one competition since Feb. 24, and that was the conference tournament some two weeks ago.
Even in a phone conversation, Strickland's voice is flooded with both excitement and energy. He was prepared by his first season as a starter for the Mountaineers by putting together a 17-11 year during his redshirt season last year, including a sixth-place finish in the National Collegiate Open, a tournament for college wrestlers not wrestling in NCAA Tournament qualifying tournaments.
"This is what you train for," Strickland said. "It's been two long years of training and this has always been in mind. It's definitely exciting as a freshman. But the goal is to get on the podium for sure."
Strickland has had quite a bit of experience against the rest of the 165-pound field throughout the course of the season. He wrestled 13 matches this year against one of the other 32 wrestlers in the 165-pound bracket.
Although he's just 3-10 in those matches, three of those losses were decided by four points or less. Strickland understands, from those 13 matches, he's capable of wrestling with the other 32 wrestlers in his bracket.
But it was a run through the Southern Scuffle, annually one of the toughest mid-season collegiate tournaments in the country, which showed Strickland he could win matches against those types of wrestlers. He lost his first match, 6-5, to Virginia's Nick Sulzer, who advanced all the way to the semifinals before losing to Cornell three-time NCAA champ Kyle Dake.
Strickland responded from the loss, winning five consecutive matches in the consolation bracket to get into the medal rounds. Along the way he beat Minnesota NCAA qualifier Cody Yohn and N.C. State national qualifier Nijel Jones. He lost in the consolation semifinals to former NCAA runner-up Tyler Caldwell of Oklahoma State, 6-0, before losing to Big 12 champion Zach Toal of Missouri in the fifth-place consolation.
"That was huge, especially for my confidence," Strickland said. "That time of the year you're really dragging out. When you have a tournament like that, it really gets your goals in line. After that tournament I had a good run. I knew I could hang with those guys. It makes you work harder."
The road to a top-eight finish and All-American status isn't exactly an easy one. Should Strickland win his first match today against Visicaro, likely waiting for him in the second round will be Penn State returning national champion David Taylor. Strickland's spot in the bracket actually changed last week when Bucknell's Corey Lear was forced to withdraw from the tournament after earning an at-large berth because of a lingering back injury.
Would he have won his first match in his original spot in the bracket, his second-round opponent would have been Dake, who is attempting to become the first wrestler in NCAA history to win four national championships in four weight classes. The potential match-up of Dake and Taylor in the finals - they've already wrestled twice this season with Dake winning both - has prompted the NCAA to change its finals format on Saturday night so that the 165-pound final will be the last one wrestled.
Strickland understands well why there's so much attention being paid to the 165-pound bracket. But he's not shying away from that potential second-round matchup. In fact, he said he'd love to be the wrestler who throws a kink into the NCAA's plans and keeps their anticipated matchup between Dake and Taylor from happening.
"It doesn't matter who I wrestle. I'm trying to win no matter who it is," Strickland said. "Anyone can be beat at any given time. But the biggest thing for me is to take it one match at a time. There's no point in drawing the bracket out in your mind. You go out and wrestle one match at a time. When you step on the line, it'll be a battle. You're going to have a tough match every time out. But to wrestle a guy of that caliber, that'll be something else."