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WORLD TEAM TRIALS NOTES: Clark on a mission; Byers focuses on offense; Cunningham seeks first World Team

Jake Clark of the U.S. Marine Corps had his best year ever in 2006, winning both the U.S. Nationals and World Team Trials to qualify for his first World Championships. Although Clark was unable to win a medal at 84 kg/185 lbs. in Guangzhou, China last year, he had some competitive matches and proved that he belonged on the World level.

This year, Clark enters the World Team Trials in a different state of mind. He was defeated in the second round at the U.S. Nationals by Chas Betts of the Minnesota Storm/USOEC, 0-6, 1-1, 1-1. Clark entered the tournament a bit banged up, and decided to withdraw with an injury, and did not earn a placement at the U.S. Nationals. He received the No. 3 seed at the World Team Trials, as the U.S. Nationals finalists automatically get the top two seeds.

Clark opened the United States Marine Corps World Team Trials Challenge Tournament with a quarterfinal 2-1, 4-2 victory over Jacob Plamman of the Gator WC/USOEC. He advances to the semifinals, where he will face longtime rival Aaron Sieracki of the U.S. Army. Clark defeated Sieracki in the final series at last year's World Team Trials in Iowa.

"I shouldn't be dropping matches, but things happen," said Clark. "It can be a good thing to lose. For some people that is hard to understand. There is a lot of pressure when you are the No. 1 guy. It was like a smack in the face. It helped me to refocus and set sights on what I want to achieve."

Clark has been pleased with the way his training has gone since the U.S. Nationals and believes he has turned the corner since his loss to Betts. He has been transferred to the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C.

"We went to Gotteburg, Sweden for a few weeks of training," said Clark. "Now, the Marines team has moved to Camp LeJeune in North Carolina. The guys at UNC Greensboro have been working with us. They have two wrestlers who qualified for the Trials, one in freestyle and one in Greco-Roman. It is good to have a partnership, and good to have college wrestlers step in to train with us. The support in LeJeune has worked well for us. There are more Marines there, and more training partners."

The loss at U.S. Nationals gave Clark a chance for a change in perspective, especially with many of his Marine comrades fighting and dying in Iraq in defense of our nation.

"I woke myself up at nationals. I had a minor injury. But you have Marines over in Iraq. The people over in Iraq are doing more than I can do. They'd give anything to train just one time a day. It has really stuck me. Recently, a couple of Marines who wrestled in college for the Naval Academy were killed over there. They will never train again. I think about that before every match. I wrestle for all the Marines who are giving their lives so I can do this," said Clark.

Clark seeks a return trip to the World Championships, for another chance at a medal. He also knows how important that experience will be in his quest to win an Olympic gold medal.

"It is important to get there for 2008," said Clark. "No matter who wins Trials, we can qualify our weight. We are tough. We will qualify. If I win today, I will show I'm there and the man to beat. Brad (Vering) and Aaron (Sieracki) feel the same way. We are hoping whoever goes to the Worlds will do well, and set us up for the Olympic year."

Byers ready to reclaim top spot at Greco-Roman

The biggest early upset at the U.S. Nationals came at 120 kg/264.5 lbs. when U.S. Army wrestler Timothy Taylor defeated his teammate and training partner Dremiel Byers in the first round in Greco-Roman. Byers, the 2002 World champion and No. 1 seed rallied back to take third in the division.

Byers has been working hard to return to the top at his weight class.

"I have picked it up," said Byers. "I need to be more aggressive. You don't have much time. I have to get it down as quick as I can."

Byers won his first match in the morning session on Saturday, scoring a 6-0, 6-0 technical fall over Brandon Doran of the New York AC. Byers will have a rematch with Taylor in the semifinals in the second session.

Byers made a name for himself internationally in 2002, when he lifted and threw every one of his opponents at the World Championships in Moscow, Russia. Part of his challenge this year has been getting his offense going from the par terre position.

"I am not looking for the perfect scenario," said Byers. "I am getting the lock and going with it. It's paying off for me."

Byers continues to train with Taylor, and he feels that his improvement is helping him to get better.

"It's more of a fight now," said Byers. "It makes us both better and the room is getting tougher. He is getting better and it is showing."

Cunningham seeks first World Team berth during comeback

Wrestling fans saw a "blast from the past" during the U.S. Nationals, when Casey Cunningham of the Sunkist Kids made a triumphant return to competition. Cunningham, after sitting out almost three years from wrestling, placed a strong second in the nationals in freestyle at 74 kg/163 lbs., losing only to Joe Heskett of the Gator WC in the finals.

Cunningham had been as high as No. 2 on the national team during the last quadrennium, losing the finals of the World Team Trials to two-time World medalist and Olympian Joe Williams. After the 2004 Olympic Trials, Cunningham gave up competition to concentrate on his coaching duties at Central Michigan Univ. The urge to compete came back this year, and Cunningham seems prepared to make his first World Team.

"Nationals were fine for me," said Cunningham. "That's not where it counts, though. I have wrestled two times in the last three years. I have a lot to improve on. I am relaxed and having fun. We will see what happens."

Cunningham has a new perspective on his career, three years after he thought it had ended.

"Before it was something I was supposed to do. Now it means more. I am giving glory to the Lord with my wrestling," he said.

Cunningham opened the Challenge Tournament with a 1-1, 2-0, 1-1 victory over Tyrone Lewis of the Gator WC, who was second at last year's U.S. Nationals. He will face 2005 World bronze medalist Donny Pritzlaff of the New York AC, who Cunningham defeated in the U.S. Nationals.

Later tonight, if he continues to win, Cunningham may make his first World Team at the age of 31.

"That would be great. I am not doing this just to go the Worlds. I am doing it to win. I want to win the Worlds and Olympics. Seven guys make the team every year. I want to be the champion," he said.
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