Tough field set to challenge wrestlers

By Ben Jervis

With the postseason at hand, it’s do-or-die time for the Maroons.

For the first time in eight years, Chicago wrestling will play host Saturday to the annual Great Lakes Regional tournament, in which the best wrestlers of the Midwest will compete to determine who moves on to NCAAs. Ten champions from as many weight classes, along with 11 coach-selected wild-card wrestlers, will earn nationals berths. Finals matches for each bracket will commence at 3:30 p.m.

Slated to be the toughest tourney in recent years, the meet will give the Maroons their best chance to demonstrate their talent and potential. Five squads out of fourteen participating are ranked in the top 25, including second-ranked Augsburg, eighth-ranked North Central, 12th-ranked Elmhurst, 16th-ranked Augustana, and 23rd-ranked St. John’s (MN). The Maroons will look to hold their own against the likes of the Augsburg Auggies, which qualified all 10 of their entries last year and stand as a potent threat again this time around.

A field of three nationally-ranked All-American veterans will lead the pack, along with nine other top-eight wrestlers and an additional returning All-American.

“None of the 12 nationally-ranked guys are assured qualifiers,” head coach Leo Kocher said. “This meet is going to be very competitive.”

For the Maroons, who have had an up-and-down season with many odd twists and turns, an uphill battle awaits them at Ratner. The team placed four wrestlers among the top six at last year’s Regionals and hopes to finish ahead of the middle of the pack this year.

While Augsburg is expected to lead the way, the biggest question mark for Saturday is the unpredictable Elmhurst Bluejays. With four of its wrestlers ranked in the top eight in their class, the ’Jays were expected to cruise through the 2005-2006 season with little trouble. A rash of injuries knocked a few of those grapplers out of action for months, though the early word is that most of them are nearly back to full strength.

“Elmhurst has dropped off the radar screen, but could come back with a vengeance on Saturday,” Kocher said.

With or without the Bluejays at full strength, superior talent will be found in all 10 weight classes, with some brackets containing multiple nationally-ranked wrestlers.

While many of the titles are up in the air, the lower two classes are not expected to be the strongest at the tourney. In the 125-pound class, the Maroons will enter first-year Ben Hart (14–15), who earned the chance to demonstrate his full potential with a respectable fifth-place finish at the North Central Invite last month. However, the class’s toughest wrestlers are expected to be Augsburg first-year Seth Flodeen and Augustana fourth-year Leo Byrd.

The 133-pound class should look similar, as second-year Brandon Tillman (7–18) will get the nod for Chicago. North Central second-year Adam Johnson should be one of the toughest in the class.

Go one class up and you’ve hit the jackpot. The 141-pound class will probably be the most competitive of all. With seven dominant wrestlers who each have numerous regular season wins, even the seventh-seed has a solid chance at winning the championship. Third-year Andrew Bribriesco (17–9), who so forcefully turned himself around from a pre-season concussion to become one of Chicago’s stars, will take the reins for the Maroons. Bribriesco has wins over a number of wrestlers who will probably be seeded ahead of him on Saturday.

“ has as good a chance as anybody,” Kocher said. “I think he’s ready to go.”

While the 149-pound class looks slightly less competative, those who underestimate the talent in the bracket will do so at their peril. Augsburg third-year Jared Evans, ranked third in the nation, will be the favorite. North Central third-year Noah Fitzenreider, who took Evans into OT in a match last week, will also vie for the crown. First-year Jeff Harman (8–14), who notched a sixth place finish at the Cornell Invite in early January, will represent the Maroons.

“Jeff is quite capable of placing,” Kocher said.

The toughest qualifier in the nation, almost as competitive as the 141-pound class, is the 157-pound title. With the third-, fourth-, fifth-, and eighth-ranked wrestlers in the nation duking it out for the crown, Maroons first-year Spencer Burns (10–19) will have plenty on his hands trying to pull out Ws for the Maroons.

More of the region’s best will be seen in the 165-pound class. Second-ranked Augsburg fourth-year Ryan Valek, who took second place at last year’s nationals, will be pitted against Augustana fourth-year Brian Daly, a two-time national qualifier. Third-year Mike Bishof (22–15), who wrestled well consistently throughout the regular season, will do his best to get involved for Chicago. He is expected to be a top-five seed.

Perhaps the Maroons’ most dominant wrestler this season, third-year Phil Kruzel (19–12) will make his stand in the 174-pound class. He will likely start the day seeded in the top five. Kruzel will look for an opportunity to take revenge against Elmhurst fourth-year Josh Rupprecht, who dealt him a 5–2 loss over him in the final at the North Central Invite last month. Sixth-ranked Augsburg second-year Robbie Gotreau is another strong candidate for the class title.

At 184 pounds, St. John’s fourth-year Dan Willaert, ranked fifth, and Augsburg fourth-year Brad Tupa, ranked sixth, head into action along with the Maroons’ entry, first-year Justin Lucas (8–6). Lucas came into the fray after star Ben Barnes’s season was ended by a hand injury last month.

The Maroon who may be most capable of placing on Saturday will get his chance in the 197-pound bracket. Third-year Drew Marriott (14–20), who has picked up his season in a big way since a fifth-place showing at the North Central Invite, is expected to be the top-seeded wrestler. His toughest competition will come from 2004 All-American fourth-year Dan Fiecke of St. John’s.

Last, but certainly not least, the heavyweights. Two grapplers in this class deserve notable mention. First-year 285-pounder Tom Nero (11–18) is expected to start Saturday seeded seventh for the Maroons. His toughest opponent could be Elmhurst third-year Ward Brady, who finished third last year and is now ranked eighth in the nation. It was in this weight class that Sean Barnes (A.B. ‘05) went 4–0 on his way to the regional heavyweight championship. He subsequently posted a 1–2 mark at Nationals.

“You never know what might happen,” said Kocher, reflecting on the uncertainty of the most competitive tourney in recent years.

With the season finished for anyone who doesn’t make NCAAs, these Maroons will be looking to take advantage of that uncertainty. The first bouts will begin at 9 a.m.