Thursday, March 6, 2008
Perry back with a vengeance
Defending national champ healed, heading to Big Tens on a mission
By Andy Hamilton
Iowa City Press-Citizen
There's a notion circulating on the outside of the Iowa wrestling room that Mark Perry Jr. isn't going to be at his best when he returns to the mat Saturday at the Big Ten Championships.
The assumption is built around the fact that the top-ranked 165-pounder in the country is coming off knee surgery, hasn't been in a live competitive setting since Jan. 13 and certainly can't be the same guy who beat the three top challengers at his weight in succession at the National Duals.
Or can he?
"I plan on going in, wrestling the best I've wrestled in my career and getting the job done fairly easily," said Perry, who is seeded No. 1 entering this weekend's tournament in Minneapolis. "I know I'm going to have to fight hard and wrestle hard, but I just feel I'm prepared and people will see a different Mark Perry out there -- more confident, more focused and pretty much injury free for the first time in a while."
Perry underwent surgery on Jan. 22 to repair a meniscus tear in a right knee that has irritated him since his freshman season. The problem flared up during the second half of his junior year and got to the point this season where he continually wondered if his knee would lock up. And it did nearly every day.
MRI tests didn't show a problem. But Perry said doctors told him his was an unusual case -- a 1-in-1,000 instance -- when an MRI did not reveal the source of the issue. Thus, they opted for surgery and discovered what was ailing the Iowa senior.
"They did a full meniscus repair," Perry said. "My whole meniscus tore off the bone and they just stapled it back to the bone."
As a result, Perry hasn't felt this good -- or explosive -- in years.
"It's pretty much night and day how I feel physically now (compared to) the last two years," he said. "This is as good as I've felt since the beginning of my freshman year. One thing coming into college that I never realized was how much of a grind it really could be. ... I've had a lot of small injuries throughout my career, (and) I'm as fresh as I've been since day one of my freshman year."
Nonetheless, there are still skeptics. Some wonder about the physical shape of the defending NCAA champion -- Said Perry: "I feel right now I'm in better shape than I was last year at the national tournament." -- while others wonder about how the layoff will affect him.
Iowa coach Tom Brands discounted a question during a news conference Tuesday when a reporter asked about Perry's "inactivity" since mid-January.
"Inactivity?" Brands said. "Have you been in our room lately? The fur's been flying in our room with Mark Perry. He's in the room, he's been wrestling hard, this is his fourth week (on the mat since surgery). ... He's been training his whole life for this, so down time doesn't concern me when you have a mindset like that and you have an attitude like that. That doesn't mean that we're reckless with him, that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is you have a unique competitor that gets up for this time of year and he has been training."
Perry has been one of the best postseason performers in college wrestling during the past three years. He has compiled a 23-4 record with nine pins in Big Ten and NCAA tournaments at Iowa, and it's taken a national finalist to beat him. Michigan's Ryan Churella (2005 Big Ten finals), Oklahoma State's Johny Hendricks (2005 NCAA semifinals) and Northwestern's Jake Herbert (2006 Big Ten finals and NCAA semifinals) are the only wrestlers to beat Perry in the postseason.
Some of Perry's greatest moments with the Hawkeyes have come at the most critical time. He posted a 3-0 victory against defending national champion Troy Letters of Lehigh in the 2005 NCAA semifinals. He captured a national championship of his own last March with a 4-3 win against Oklahoma State's two-time NCAA champion Johny Hendricks.
"That's when it matters," Perry said. "I think it's maybe being around my dad and you hear something so many times that it sticks with you. He's made me realize through my whole career, even in high school and the state tournament, it doesn't really matter how things go throughout the season, even though you want them to go your way. All that really matters is what happens at the end.
"(The postseason is) more exciting. I wish I could get up for everything the same way, and there are certain athletes who can do that and that's something I wish I could've been able to do, but I enjoy the postseason so much. It's big, it's important, everything's riding on it. I think what makes it most exciting is there's a lot of pressure. Some people fold, but I like the pressure."
Reach Andy Hamilton at 339-7368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.