Being the last competitors to hit the mat for their team, two UNT wrestlers know how to deal with pressure. In nearly every meet this season, the rest of the team looks to them in crunch time when everything is on the line.
But that is no problem for sophomores Ikaika Neal and Joseph Arce.
As the final weight classes to compete at every tournament, both Arce and Neal have been charged with bringing up the back and sealing the team’s fate with their performances. This happened recently with the Southwest Conference Championship when it came down to Neal and Arce to secure not only wins for themselves, but consecutive conference championships for UNT as well.
The duo came through.
When it was all said and done, Neal finished in second place in the 235-pound weight class while Arce took home the gold in the 285-pound division.
“Pressure is how diamonds are made,” head coach Andre Metzger said. “I call these two my magical Chevys that take care of business and continue to push themselves even harder.”
Currently ranked No. 18 and No. 10 in the nation respectively, Neal and Arce are gearing up for the national competition March 9-11 in Allen, Texas. And although the tandem are the leaders on the team, their journey to get to the pinnacle of college wrestling could not be more different.
Wrestling since the age of four, Neal was hand-picked on the side of the road in Portland, Oregon where his first coach convinced his grandmother he needed to wrestle.
“I was a really big kid and when [my coach] saw me he said ‘he looks like someone who can become a champion, you should get him into wrestling,’” Neal said. “I was four so I had no choice.”
A simple decision made by his grandmother and a keen observation from his first coach sparked into a passion for Neal, who stuck with the sport until his family moved.
Before his freshman year of high school, Neal’s family relocated to Mesquite, Texas, where they did not have a wrestling team in the district. As a result, Neal went four years without wrestling. Upon graduating high school, Neal came to UNT where he quickly joined the wrestling club — and got back to what he loves most.
Arce, on the other hand, took a much different route to college wrestling than his fellow heavyweight.
Instead of picking up wrestling as a passion, Arce started wrestling as a way to get out of classes on Fridays. When his high school career ended, Arce went to college to play football.
Then everything came to a screeching halt.
“I got a scholarship for Tyler Junior College football,” Arce said. “[But] when a new coach came in, [he] took away everyone’s scholarship. I decided to go straight to work as a personal trainer.”
When Arce eventually returned to college, he did not decide to join the club wrestling team until his second year.
That’s when his path intersected with Neal’s.
“Both are a big factor on this team,” Metzger said “They stay on track when it comes to school. They come to practice whenever they can and they have improved over the season and only continue to do so.”
Becoming nationally ranked ultimately boils down how the duo are scored during matches. Points are earned for takedowns, pins and even getting back up. These points go towards which wrestler wins the match and also adds to the player’s overall personal score.
The higher the personal score, the higher the ranking.
Neal’s season in particular has seen several ups and downs. Over the past few weeks his national ranking has fluctuated, with his current record sitting at 10-7 with an overall score of 56.35.
“I’ve made a lot of mental mistakes that have cost me,” Neal said. “But overall I feel like I’m still doing well.”
Although Neal is his toughest critic, former teammate and current assistant coach BJ Sterling believes Neal is having a good season.
Being the former 285-weight class wrestler for UNT, Sterling and Neal use to practice with each other as the two heavyweights on the team. He has also witnessed Neal in nationals the previous year.
“[Neal] has definitely become a better wrestler over the past year,” Sterling said. “He’s developed a better overall move set and a greater understanding towards position and using his disadvantages as strengths.”
While Neal believes he could have had a better season, Arce is simply trying not to let his success go to his head.
Arce’s season record is 12-2 with seven wins from pins and an overall score of 69.70. His only losses have come from the same opponent earlier on in the season. For this being Arce’s first season back after nearly 10 years being away from the sport, he is impressing everyone.
Including his Olympic medal-winning coach.
“[Arce] was a blessing to the team,” Metzger said. “He walked in and I was like ‘if I can teach him a few things then he will be great.'”
Featured Image: Chemistry sophomore Ikaika Neal (right) and kinesiology sophomore Joseph Arce (left) practice a take-down move at practice. With the national championship competition right around the corner, both Neal and Arce are nationally ranked, with Neal at 18th and Arce at 10th. Katie Jenkins