Grappling with distractions, Mid has eyes on NCAA prize

Wrestling: As graduation and Navy SEAL training beckon, Mark Conley aims to close his career by becoming the third national champion in Navy history.

College Wrestling

March 07, 2002|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Sitting on an observation deck overlooking what he affectionally calls "The Room," Navy senior Mark Conley acknowledges that staying focused on anything other than wrestling has been a challenge in itself lately.

Sure, there is graduation in May and the start of Navy SEAL training in July. But for Conley, the nation's top-ranked 141-pounder according to the InterMat Web site, the countdown has begun to March 21, the first day of the NCAA championships in Albany, N.Y.

Conley (36-2) will try to become the first Midshipman in 29 years and just the third in the history of the program to win an NCAA individual crown.

He will need a first- or second-place finish at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association championships on Saturday and Sunday at Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa., to qualify for the NCAAs.

"There are times when I play games with myself, and picture myself on the mat in the national semifinals," Conley said. "But I try not to do that too often.

"I don't want to add any pressure toward the end. I have been wrestling for 16 years because it is something I love, and thinking about the end - this one match that is going to mean everything - that's not going to help me win a national championship. What is going to help me is getting better every day in The Room."

The Room is Navy's wrestling gym, a long and narrow facility in Lejeune Hall, a building tucked about 50 yards inside Gate One of the Naval Academy.

The back wall of the gym is decorated with blue plaques, commemorating past and present Navy coaches and championship wrestlers. Prominently displayed on that wall are the names of Navy's two NCAA winners: Dan Muthler, the most recent champion in 1974, and Pete Blair, a winner in 1954.

"My focus is wrestling, and that is one thing a lot of athletes get away from," said Conley, 21, the Mids' captain. "Of course, weight training and running are a part of it, but in the NCAA finals, you are going to be in a wrestling match, not a race or a power-lifting contest. So as much time as you can spend in The Room as possible is key."

Conley, a native of Exton, Pa., is 118-32 during his four-year college career. He's third on the school wins list, just one behind John Reich and nine from tying Greg Gingeleskie's record of 127.

"Everybody who competes at an elite level has special gifts, but the separator is always the conditioning, the heart, the willingness to compete and put it out on the line," said Navy coach Bruce Burnett, who has coached six Olympic gold medalists.

"Mark has those qualities. He is not the most gifted athlete, but he is gifted mentally."

Conley proves that off the mat, too, as one of 16 graduating seniors selected earlier this year to go to Basic Underwater Demolition School, a prerequisite to becoming a Navy SEAL.

He will depart for Coronado, Calif., in July for the start of what Conley expects to be about a year and a half of training.

"Right now, the responsibility level has increased, and it has dawned on us that we are going to graduate and be right in the midst of an international conflict," Conley said. "We know the reality of it, but that is what we came here for, to serve our country."

Navy SEALs are one of the elite combat units of the armed forces, called upon to conduct special operations in the world's most dangerous locales. One of the seven Americans killed in Afghanistan this week was a Navy SEAL.

About 15 minutes before practice two weeks ago, Conley was finishing a two-hour SEAL preparatory class, going through several training regimes, including one in which he was tied up and dropped in the pool.

There are things about Conley that are not as hard core. For example, when he takes the mat for a match, he first acknowledges his mother, Jane, who has attended nearly every one of his collegiate matches and got him into the sport when she saw how much energy he had as a 6-year-old.

"It calms me down," Conley said.

However, when the match starts, there is nothing sedate about Conley's style. He uses his speed, strength and conditioning to control inside position and wear down his opponents.

"He'll make some mistakes, but any time you are real aggressive, there are mistakes to be made," Burnett said. "Nobody outworks him. He wrestles from the very beginning to the end, and his conditioning usually takes over. He is very good at controlling the match."

He has proved that more than ever this season, losing just a 1-1 tiebreaker to Penn State's Scott Moore, ranked 12th, in the Penn State Open on Dec. 2 and an 11-8 decision to Arizona State junior Eric Larkin, the fifth-ranked 141-pounder, in the prestigious Midlands Tournament in late December.

Since losing to Larkin, Conley has won 16 straight, including a 4-1 decision over Virginia Tech's Sean Gray - ranked second in the country behind Conley - at the National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Star Classic on Dec. 30.

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