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|Undefeated senior Michael Lightner guns for his first NCAA title|
By Gary Abbott USA Wrestling
Michael Lightner of Oklahoma enters the 2001 NCAA Championships as an undefeated senior. His 30-0 record this year makes him one of the most successful athletes in the nation. He has already won three All-American honors, and has twice been in the NCAA Championship finals.
The only thing missing for Michael Lightner is a NCAA individual title. This weekend in Iowa City, Iowa, Lightner is aiming to take care of that goal by claiming the 141-pound title.
Lightner, a native of Marlow, Okla., lit up the arena in his opening round match, totally dominating Tony Abate of Slippery Rock in a 19-4 technical fall in 4:43. It seemed like another day in the office for Lightner, who is fresh off a strong performance at the Big 12 Championships, where he won his fourth straight title.
"It's a good start," said Lightner. "I have a lot of confidence. I've been here three times before. I know how to wrestle here. At this tournament, you take them one match at a time. The first match, the second match, they are just as important as any other round. I must stay focused and aggressive."
Lightner is clearly the star of the Sooner team, and has been a true champion since he first showed up on the Norman campus in 1996.
"Michael Lightner has been absolutely fantastic from day one," said Oklahoma head coach Jack Spates. "His skills are outstanding, and he has devoted himself to learn the sport. He has made huge strides and has become one of the best wrestlers in the country. But that is not enough. His goal is to be the national champion."
"He knew to reach that goal he had to work even harder," said Spates. "He lifted and got much stronger. He is four or five pounds bigger than in the past. As a technician, he has always been slick. His leg attacks have become amazing. He has a hammer mentality, refusing to be defeated."
As a redshirt freshman, Lighter placed fifth in the 1998 NCAA Tournament. He came back in the 1999 NCAAs and placed second, losing to Doug Schwab of Iowa in the finals. Last year, Lightner made the gold-medal finals as a junior, falling to Carl Perry of Illinois in the last match of the season.
If you believe the seeds, Lightner won't win this year, either. Schwab is ranked No. 1, is also unbeaten with 30-0 record, and has three career victories over Lightner. If this "dream finals" becomes reality, the entire wrestling community could see one of the fiercest finals in recent memory. Lightner doesn't care about the seeds, or even who the opponent is. He just plans on winning this time around.
"The seeding doesn't matter," said Lightner. "You don't need to be seeded; if you are the best wrestler in the tournament, you will win. I just have to have my best effort."
Certainly, the Sooners have spent time getting ready for Schwab if the match comes along. "Schwab is a great wrestler," said Spates. "We know who beat us in the past. He deserves respect and we respect him. We are not just looking to Schwab. He have a long tournament to wrestle. We are trying to work hard and wrestle to the end of every match. That is the focus."
Lightner believes he is up to the task this year. As a senior, he has been through the ups and downs of this tournament a number of times. There is an extra urgency in his preparation, however. This is his last chance to bring home the gold.
"I am a much better wrestler now," said Lightner. "I'm mentally and physically stronger than ever. It's been a good season. I have stayed fresh and have set high goals. There is no comparison to the past. I'm at a whole new level this year."
Spates is hopeful that one of the best wrestlers in his program's storied history will go out as the ultimate champion. He also has enjoyed the process of working with a student-athlete who has represented his school and sport with dignity and integrity.
"He is as good a kid off the mat as he is a competitor on the mat," said Spates. "He's a courteous kid, somebody who is respectful. He's like Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde, and has another personality when he is wrestling."
"To win, it would be the culmination of one of the greatest careers in Sooner history," said Spates. "Very few people are four-time All-Americans, or even three-time finalists. He has been tremendous. Win or lose, he's my guy and I love him. He came here this year with a purpose."
Perhaps, all the hard work and focus, Michael Lightner can finally become a NCAA champion. We will all know for sure by Saturday night.