Freshman wrestling with confidence

Sarah Mitchell

Leroy Vega’s post-match opponents take plenty of shots at him and are usually assured of scoring a takedown.
Young fans are allowed on the mat after dual meets, and aspiring Gophers grapplers practiced their moves on Vega following Friday’s meet against No. 10 Michigan and Saturday’s meet against No. 14 Michigan State. The Gophers freshman usually allows the youngsters the advantage, helping them build something he just recently learned about — confidence.
“Friday night I wrestled this kid, he was like 4 or 5,” Vega said. “His dad came up to me (Sunday) and said, `He’s been talking about it for the past couple of days. He wants to wrestle you again.'”
Most of Vega’s opponents might not be as willing to request a rematch. Ever since a 16-6 loss to Oklahoma State’s Teague Moore (No. 1) at the Nov. 29 home dual meet, the 125-pounder has been holding his own.
Vega has gone 10-3 since that wake-up match, including a much closer loss to Moore at the National Duals two weeks ago. One of two freshmen in the Gophers starting line-up, Vega credited the film from his first Moore confrontation as his confidence booster.
“I was watching the tape of the Teague match and I talked to (Gophers assistant coach Mark Schwab),” Vega said. “He said I didn’t have the fire in my eyes in that match. He said it looked like I didn’t believe in myself. Knowing that, it made me real mad.”
Having found a source of confidence in a sport which often requires a stronger mentality than body, Vega has shown that he belongs in the nation’s top 10 of 125-pounders. The most recent proof came Friday night when No. 10 Michigan showed up at the Sports Pavilion.
Ranked 14th in the nation, Vega found himself the underdog, facing No. 7 Chris Viola. Vega accepted the challenge, wanting to put to rest a year of questions.
“You know, I went to the National Duals last year and watched him wrestle and I saw him when he came here last year for a dual meet,” Vega said. “I always wondered if I could go with him.”
Vega’s answer came quickly. Nearly halfway through the first period, the Portage, Ind., native lit up the scoreboard first, scoring a two point takedown and firing up Gophers backers. But the experienced senior Viola stayed in the match.
With 15 seconds left in the third period, Vega trailed by one. In veteran-like fashion, Vega was able to come back with time draining from the clock. The Gophers freshman tallied another takedown, forging ahead to a 6-5 victory.
“I think it was a good match from Leroy’s standpoint; it was a legit match,” Gophers coach J Robinson said. “Leroy was tired, but so was Viola. We told him, you’re going to get tired, but you have to wrestle hard for seven minutes.”
The upset over Viola and a controlled showing on Sunday (a 9-5 decision against Michigan State’s 19th-ranked Chris Williams) leaves only one grappler left to beat in Vega’s mind.
“The next time I see him will be at the NCAAs,” said Vega of Moore. “I get excited just talking about it.”