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By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
BY JEFF EVANS Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Bryce Hammond had plenty of big-time meets during his spectacular career at Bakersfield High.
Now he's entering a new phase of his wrestling career: the NCAA Championships.
What: 84th NCAA Division I Championships
Where: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa
Participants: 330 in 10 weight classes
CSUB entrants: Tyler Iwamura (senior, 125 pounds, 23-8), Bryce Hammond (freshman, 174 pounds, 33-8)
Of note: 35 entrants are four-time NCAA qualifiers. Cornell's Kyle Dake (165 pounds) is attempting to become the first four-time NCAA champion in four different weight classes. ... Seven champions from last season return. ... There are 10 unbeaten wrestlers competing. There are two undefeated wrestlers at 141, 184 and 197, zero at 157, 174 and 285.
Hammond takes a 33-8 record and nine-match winning streak into the NCAA Division I Nationals, which will be held Thursday through Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.
"Obviously my goal is to win the tournament, but getting on the podium (a top-8 finish) would be awesome," said Hammond, a 174-pound redshirt freshman.
CSUB coach Mike Mendoza acknowledges that's a tough task, but it isn't impossible.
"He hasn't wrestled some of the top guys and he knows they're good," Mendoza said. "But he has confidence in his skills and ability. And he's confident he can wrestle his best this weekend."
A lot of Hammond's success is due to his own mental makeup, Mendoza said.
"In all the years I've been coaching, he's the most mature freshman that I've ever had in terms of being rounded, having good balance and confidence," Mendoza said. "There's no cockiness there.
"I believe he believes that if he wrestles well, he won't surprise himself to be standing on the podium."
Hammond has one of the 174-pound favorites in his first match: sixth-seeded Logan Storley of Minnesota (24-3).
"We're actually friends," Hammond said. "At the Dapper Dan in Pennsylvania (following his state meet winning senior year), we were on the USA team together -- he was at 171 and I was at 160s. We drilled together."
Hammond was the back-to-back California state high school champion as a junior and senior at BHS, so he's used to big-time meets. But Hammond admits this one is a different level.
"The intensity is pretty similar, and a lot of guys who were at the state meet in California are now the top guys in the country," Hammond said.
The talent, though, is far superior.
"Not technically, but physically and mentally, there's a lot more of a warrior's mentality at the college level," he said.
In high school, Hammond's success had many opponents intimidated before a match started.
"Now, obviously, I've stepped into a new level," he said. "People don't stop wrestling during a match. It's seven minutes, non-stop.
"If you're a ranked guy now, everyone is coming after you. There's a few guys who will come after you in high school but the vast majority of guys are going to let down for you."
Hammond enters the NCAAs unranked. He said he isn't fazed about facing a high seed like Storley in his first match.
"There's no such thing as a good draw in an NCAA Tournament," Hammond said. "I'm wrestling him in the first round, and if I was the 11th seed, I'd wrestle him in the second round.
"You've got to expect stuff like that, especially since they don't give a lot of love to the West Coast guys."
Hammond began his collegiate career last season as a redshirt, where he competed unattached in a handful of matches, going 9-5. By doing that, he didn't start his four-year NCAA clock until this season.
The redshirt year was planned to better prepare him for the rigors of collegiate competition, plus give him another year to mature.
"Part of that had to do with being between 65s and 74s," Hammond said. "Just the initial adjusting to the mature level and strength level of the guys I was wrestling."
Mendoza said Hammond's redshirt year was a good teaching tool.
"Some of his losses last year: He really honed in on some of the things he needed to improve on and work on," Mendoza said. "He's made a lot of improvement."
Hammond said his natural weight is around 174 pounds, which means he doesn't have to cut weight like many opponents he faces.
But Hammond added there's no way he could have competed at 165 fulltime this season.
"I'm a lean guy," he said. "Even though I'm not cutting any weight for 74s, getting to 65s would have been tough, and it's a long season to cut that much weight."
Mendoza said Hammond has continued to improve as this season progressed.
"It's the way he wrestles matches. He's finishing matches stronger than he did earlier in the year," Mendoza said.
"And even in some of his wins earlier in the year he didn't finish as strong as he could have. Now he's going through the entire match and finishing strong."
Hammond and CSUB senior 125-pounder Tyler Iwamura are the two Roadrunner qualifiers for the nationals. Both earned automatic berths by winning their respective weight divisions at the Pac-12s.
In Hammond's case, he beat Arizona State's Blake Stauffer 10-4 in the Pac-12 finals, Stauffer is the No. 11 seed at the NCAAs and will likely face the Hammond-Storley winner in the second round.
"There is a value to having a winning streak," Mendoza said of Hammond's nine-match streak entering the Storley match. "If you're on a roll, it's a good thing. You've just won your conference, so you're definitely going in with some momentum."