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Darton aims high as 6 wrestlers open NJCAA nationals today

The six Darton College wrestlers who will be headed to NJCAA nationals, which begin today in Rochester, Minn., are, from left, Terry Harris, Raheem Hill, Dametres Ellis, Trey Hicks, Cole Claar and Ryan DeVita. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

The six Darton College wrestlers who will be headed to NJCAA nationals, which begin today in Rochester, Minn., are, from left, Terry Harris, Raheem Hill, Dametres Ellis, Trey Hicks, Cole Claar and Ryan DeVita. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Darton’s Terry Harris has been bitten. His teeth have gotten knocked out. He’s received more than one black eye, and his finger has been dislocated.

It’s been a physical, grueling season for the Cavs’ 149-pound wrestler, but first-year coach Chris Fleeger wouldn’t have it any other way.

“(Fleeger) tells us that win or lose, even if the guy is better than me, just beat up whoever is in front of me,” Harris said. “I don’t care if I win or lose, I’m just going to hurt whoever comes on the mat.”

It’s about never backing down for Harris, who is one of six Darton wrestlers competing in the NJCAA national tournament this weekend in Rochester, Minn.

“Never back down. You just gotta keep coming,” Harris said. “The winning will take care of itself. You just have to give it your best, and I can guarantee (Fleeger) that. If I can guarantee him anything, I can guarantee him that I am going to go into nationals and leave everything on the mat and show him what he taught us.”

That’s the type of attitude Fleeger, Darton’s first-year coach who replaced Josh Watts last summer, has instilled in his wrestlers this season, and it’s a mentality they took all the way to Minnesota.

The six Cavs who qualified for nationals are Harris, Ryan DeVita (125), Dametres Ellis (133), Cole Claar (141), Raheem Hill (174) and Trey Hicks (184). First-round matches begin at 9:30 a.m. today, and the tournament will conclude with 10 championship matches Saturday, starting at 6:45 p.m. The title bouts will be carried live at

www.njcaatv.ihigh.com.

Fleeger said each of his wrestlers have legitimate shots at placing in their respective weight classes.

“I know it sounds super optimistic, but with all of their styles and their fitness, they are ready to go,” Fleeger said. “It’s just going to come down to style, matchups and draws. Absolutely every one of them has a chance.”

Hicks may have the best chance of them all. He went toe-to-toe with Middlesex’s John McArdle, the third-ranked wrestler in the nation at 184 pounds, in the championship match of the regional qualifier. Hicks led McArdle the entire match before he got caught on his back and pinned in the third round.

“I’m not sure if he thought he could go with those guys,” Fleeger said of Hicks. “But after the (regional) tournament, he said, ‘Coach, I can go with those guys.’ It gave him confidence more than anything else.”

Confidence is exactly what Fleeger has been giving the Cavs in the days leading up to the two-day national tournament.

“I’m telling them to consider yourself the bad draw,” Fleeger said. “I tell them that nobody wants to wrestle you the first two days. No one knows you. They haven’t seen you. They haven’t been able to scout you. They are going to be afraid, and they should be.”

It’s a mentality that Fleeger brought with him from the Midwest, where he was a three-time NCAA All-American and Big Ten Conference champion at Purdue.

“It was kind of a culture shock coming down here,” Fleeger said of his move to Georgia less than a year ago. “Wrestling isn’t the big sport it is up North. The kids don’t have the experience or the exposure. It’s more of a hobby (in the South). Up North when you wrestle it’s a lifestyle. It’s a big commitment, and people aren’t afraid to make that commitment.”

Fleeger has brought wrestlers from all over the country and has molded them into one team.

“It doesn’t matter where you are from,” said DeVita, a transfer from Division II Belmont Abbey College (N.C.). “It’s all about your work ethic. When you have coaches like we have and with the stuff they can teach you, it really doesn’t matter if you are from Iowa or New Jersey or anywhere.”

The Cavs started with around 50 wrestlers at the beginning of the season, but only 16 bought into Fleeger’s regimen and stuck around. Now just six remain standing.

And those six have ended practice the same way all season — with a single word.

“We always say ‘Champs’ at the end of every practice,” Hicks said. “The more you say it, the more you start to believe it. That’s why we say it at the end of every practice. That’s what our goal is.”