Evan Henderson has won 34 matches, lost to only three wrestlers this season and won the Atlantic Coast Conference title at 141 pounds last week.
But for the North Carolina sophomore from New Florence, it’s all about what happens this week. That’s when Henderson and four of his Tar Heels teammates will head to Des Moines, Iowa, for the NCAA tournament.
“(The ACC title is) nice to have, but it really doesn’t mean anything until you get on the podium at nationals,” Henderson said in a telephone interview from Chapel Hill, N.C., last week. “Yeah, I got it – yay. I want a national title. I don’t want an ACC title. I mean, I do – it means a lot – but in retrospect, it’s just a nice thing to have.”
Henderson is looking to build off his performance at the NCAA tournament a year ago, when he went 1-2 to cap a 28-13 season as a true freshman.
“I know what it’s about. I’ve been there,” Henderson said of the NCAA tournament. “I’ve wrestled underneath the pressure. I kind of know what to expect. I’m the only one on my team that’s been there.”
Henderson is 34-6 this season, but he has only lost to three wrestlers and only two of those will be at the NCAA tournament. Virginia Tech’s Devin Carter has beaten Henderson three times this season, but the Hokie is redshirting and isn’t eligible for the national championships.
“A couple of ups and downs,” Henderson said of his season. “Obviously, there were a couple of losses there. Overall, I think I did pretty well, I guess.”
He did well enough to earn the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. If he lives up to that seed he’ll be an All-American, but Henderson isn’t worried about seeds.
“You get seeded where you get seeded, I guess. There’s nowhere in that bracket where you’re not going to run into somebody,” he said. “It’s a tough bracket. I think there are five returning All-Americans plus a bunch of qualifiers from last year.”
One of those returning All-Americans is Ohio State’s Hunter Stieber, who brings a 31-0 record into the tournament and is the top seed. Henderson pinned Stieber last season, but then saw the Buckeye go on to finish sixth in the nation.
Henderson isn’t interested in thinking about what might have been.
“I haven’t wrestled him this year,” Henderson said. “It might have been different. I’ll see him in the semis if I make it that far. Then we’ll see how it goes.”
First, Henderson will need to get past Northwestern’s Pasquale Greco in the opening round. Another Big Ten wrestler, Minnesota’s Nick Dardanes, is the No. 8 seed and could await Henderson in the second round.
If the seeds hold up, Henderson would face another Pennsylvania native in the quarterfinals. Edinboro’s Mitchell Port is the fourth seed. Port and Henderson are no strangers. They wrestled a number of times when they were younger and met twice this season, with Port beating Henderson twice – 4-0 and 7-0 – at the Midlands tournament in December.
If Henderson can avenge his losses to Port, it likely would set up that rematch with Stieber. It also would guarantee that he’d find that spot on the podium that he so desperately wants.
Henderson’s twin brother, Robert, went 12-10 as a redshirt freshman at 149 pounds.