S.F. State wrestlers have chips on shoulders 

Ken Packard is unseeded and unheralded as he prepares for this weekend’s NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships at Nebraska-Kearney.

Which means the 157-pound San Francisco State sophomore is a dangerous man.

"Going into matches, I’m always looking for something to get angry about and that’s the most obvious thing," Packard said. "I feel like they should know who I am."

Packard and 174-pound senior teammate Will Simmons are both hoping to be the most recent Gators to make names for themselves on the national stage. This is the 44th consecutive year at least one San Francisco State wrestler has qualified for nationals and 2006 marked the first time in 17 seasons that a Gator did not earn All-America honors by placing in the top eight in their weight class.

"We know we’re not ranked the highest — but we want to start that All-American tradition again," Simmons said. "We’re not trying to come home without a medal."

Part of the reason Packard (13-11) and Simmons (6-8) have remained below the radar this season is due to the quality of the competition they’ve faced. According to coach Lars Jensen, San Francisco State is one of the few Division II wrestling programs west of the Rocky Mountains and consequently the Gators are forced to face off against top-tier D I programs around the West Coast.

"People look at our records and start laughing and become overconfident," Jensen said. "But we’ve gone up against powerhouse teams like Stanford, Bakersfield and even Iowa in a tournament. So we know we’re ready."

At varying points in the season, both Packard and Simmons appeared to be long shots to qualify for the championships. Packard wasn’t even a starter as a freshman a year ago and struggled through a tepid start this season before peaking with a second-place showing at the Western Regionals. The Fresno native has won four of his last five matches, including a 4-3 win over Paul Tice of Division I Cal State Fullerton and an impressive 6-5 decision over talented Mike Gallegos of Adams (Colo.) State in the regional semifinal. He will face third-ranked Jason Leavitt (30-7) of Central Oklahoma in the first round Friday.

"My biggest thing is I’m going to wrestle for seven minutes regardless of who I’m up against," Packard said. "When it comes down to it, it’s usually the guy who wants it more who wins. And that’s usually me."

While Packard was improving, Simmons had to spend much of his senior season off the mat. The Sacramento native started the season at 165 pounds, but he injured his ribs in one of the Gators’ first tournaments and gained some weight while recuperating.

He has come back at 174 stronger than ever, rebounding from being pinned by eventual champion Larry Wilbanks Western (Colo.) State in the first round of regionals to win his next three matches to grab third place. He will also open up the championships Friday, facing fifth-ranked Cody Henrikson (20-6) of Augustana (Ill.) College.

"It’s exciting to be going to Nebraska," Simmons said. "I put in all this work and it’s a great reward."

NCAA DIVISION II CHAMPIONSHIPS

WHEN: Friday-Saturday

WHERE: Kearney, Neb.

S.F. STATE ENTRIES: Ken Packard (13-11), 157 pounds; Will Simmons (6-8), 175 pounds

MORE INFO: www.ncaasports.com/wrestling/mens

melliser@examiner.com

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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