PEMBROKE — It has been busy as usual for Blaze Shade and Mikey Thomas the past two weeks, minus the fact that they are training in a less-crowded wrestling room at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
The training partners that have wrestled with each other in practice for the last three years are closing out their careers together for the first time at NCAA Division II national championship in Birmingham, Ala. on Friday and Saturday. The trip to nationals is the first for Thomas and the fourth for Shade, who has twice been named All-American.
“It’s great to have someone else endure it with you because these national practices are no joke,” Shade said. “You just have to push even harder after going through a whole season, and now you’re at the biggest stage so you have to go harder.”
While Shade — the second-ranked wrestler at 174 pounds in the country — has experience on his side this weekend, Thomas has been there every step of the way for the last three years in prepping his partner for nationals. Now is his time to reap the benefits of practicing alongside the best wrestler on the team the last two seasons.
“It’s nice to go into the tournament with somebody that you’ve been training with for so long, the familiarity of knowing that that person has been there and is going to push you,” Thomas said.
Thomas finished second in the NCAA Midwest Super Regionals at 184 pounds following a 12-3 loss in the title bout to Ashland’s Jordan Murphy. He is 19-8 overall this season and takes on Zach Stodden of Nebraska-Kearney, who comes in ninth in the country, in the first round.
In the title bout of the 174-pound class at regionals, Shade fell to a familiar opponent in Wisconsin-Parkside’s Nick Becker in a 4-1 decision. The pair met up last year in the 2016 national championship match, which Becker won 9-3. Shade takes on Pitt-Johnstown’s John Blankenship in the first round of nationals and has a win previously this season over his opponent at the Midwest Classic back in December.
“They’ve been training partners with the exception of a time or two when they were going with a new guy to get a fresh look, but I think your training partner you can feed off of them,” Johnson said. “It says a lot about Mikey to not only want to reach out and grab the best guy on the team, but to be selfish and make him his training partner and know that he’s going to be the one to get me to where I want to be.”
Shade is 24-3 this season with two losses coming to Becker. The pair is pitted on opposite sides of the bracket and will require three wins from both to set up a rematch for the title. The first three matches for Shade are the main focus, but the thought of a rematch and trying to get back at the wrestler that has been his kryptonite the past year is something he hopes will come at the end of the road.
“If we do, kinda secretly that’s the only way I want it,” Shade said. “If I meet him again and win it over him, that would be the icing on the cake. It would be everything.”
Three of Shade’s last four losses have come to Becker.
“We’re clicking on all the right cylinders and we’re doing all the things we know we need to do to get to that Saturday night match and wrestle on that raised stage,” Johnson said. “The national tournament is not about Becker. It’s about the three opponents that we’re going to face to punch our ticket to Saturday night. If Becker is the guy there at the end of the day, great.”
For his first and only visit to nationals, Thomas has a general idea of what it will be like to be on that stage, but the extra influences that come from nationals is something he believes he can work through.
“There’s going to be a little nerves just because it’s my first time going, but I somewhat know what to expect,” Thomas said. “It makes me know that I’ve been doing the right things (to make nationals as a senior). It makes me feel more comfortable to know that it wasn’t for nothing because this has been my end goal to give my last shot to hopefully win that title and become an All-American.”
“Mikey needs to know that just because this is his first time to the dance, doesn’t mean he can’t get it done,” Johnson said. “He has all the tools and he’s one of the best guys out there.”
While this week was spring break for the UNCP students, there was no break for the wrestling pair, something Shade has become accustomed to.
“There are thousands and thousands of wrestlers that wished they were in their situation where they don’t have to have a spring break so to speak,” Johnson said. “If you ask any of the guys in our program if they would rather be going to the beach or somewhere or training for Alabama, I think they would all rather tell you they would rather be training for Alabama.”
UNCP’s Mikey Thomas closes his career this weekend with his first appearance in nationals.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.