Finally healthy, Chicago enters UAA Championship intent on reclaiming title

The wrestling team is trying to think of Saturday’s conference meet as just another meet, but after a long and injury-riddled season, the UAA title means much more.

By Jake Grubman

It has been a bumpy road for the wrestling team, but the path finally comes to an end this Saturday when the Maroons compete in the UAA championships, their last team meet.

Oftentimes slowed by injury or overmatched by national powerhouses, the Maroons (4–10) are now mostly healthy, and are headed to Ohio for dual meets with NYU (7–6) and host Case (1–9).  The championships will be a chance for Chicago to claim its 12th conference championship.

“We have seen starters in every weight class knocked out with injury at some point this season—that has impacted things a little,” head coach Leo Kocher said. “But the fact is the UAA championships have to be considered the most important team event of this season.”

They’ve been here before. Historically a strong meet for the Maroons, last season’s UAA championships saw Chicago lose the title to NYU—one of the team’s few setbacks at the conference meet this decade.

In the last eight years, the Maroons have come away with six conference titles, and they’ll be bringing three athletes who are reigning UAA champions in their weight classes: third-year Troy Carlson, fourth-year Justin Lucas, and second-year Ryan Hatten. For this team, the trip to Ohio is just another match.

“Having been a UAA champ the past two years, I plan on doing it again. They are just two more matches added to my season,” Carlson said. “The environment might be a little more stressful in the team sense, but individually we all know what we have to do in order to win….”

Still, in a season that has matched Chicago with ranked opponents nine times, the conference meet has been a major target all year.

“We try to approach all matches in the same fashion, but when it comes down to it, especially after we finished second [as a team] last year, there will be a little more intensity in these UAA matches,” Lucas said.

Now, another team title could provide vindication for the squad, erasing their less-than-pristine 4–10 record in dual meets and demonstrating the toughness that Chicago has needed to overcome injury all season.

For some, like Carlson, this weekend is a shot to add another title to the trophy case, and for others, it’s a shot to reach the brass ring for the first time. For the class of 2009, it’s the last shot.

“Knowing this will be the last time our senior class will compete definitely makes us all aware that we must make a strong effort to wrestle our best and enjoy it, too,” Lucas said. “The senior class has…fought through four seasons together, and it would be special to go out on top as a team.”

With the championship trophy currently residing at NYU, the Violets are hoping to be repeat champions for the first time since the 1999 and 2000 seasons. While Chicago has the lion’s share of UAA titles, with 12 in the conference’s 21-year history, NYU has won two of the last three seasons and is returning two individual champions from a year ago.

Third-year Kyle Christensen is looking to make it a three-peat at 125 pounds, and fourth-year Naum Shuminov took home the 174-pound crown a season ago (when Carlson competed at 165 pounds) but will move up to 184 pounds for this meet.

Case, meanwhile, is trying for its first UAA championship since 1996. Fourth-year Drew Gardella, the conference’s Most Outstanding Wrestler in 2008 and the Spartans’ only individual champion last year, returns this season in the 149-pound weight class.

“NYU has been fielding a competitive dual team—but I think we match up pretty well with them,” Kocher said. “Case Western has a couple of outstanding individuals, but I don’t think they have the broad depth needed to beat us in a dual meet.”

Predicting a tight competition with NYU, Kocher added that the title will probably go to the team that holds the advantage in close matches, a sentiment echoed by his teammates.

“I am very confident in our team’s chances this year,” Carlson said. “I think we have tough wrestlers in each spot, and we just need to try to get bonus points where we can and keep the matches that we lose close.”

While this weekend is the Maroons’ final team competition this year, the grapplers still have at least one tournament to go. On February 21, the Maroons will go to Wisconsin for the Great Lakes Regional, where they can qualify as individuals for the NCAA Championship, to be held March 6 and 7.