Sixth straight title could be toughest yet for wrestling

By Sean Ahmed

With five Maroons placing in the top four of last weekend’s Manchester Invite, the wrestling team appears to be hitting its stride headed into UAAs. They may have to do even better, though, as Case and NYU could pose the biggest in-conference threats to the five-time reigning champions since the beginning of their dominance in 2001.

Chicago (3–5) heads to Cleveland this weekend to take on both the Spartans (0–1) and the Violets (11–2–1) in the annual three-team UAA championship. Whereas in previous years the Maroons have been clear favorites to take the league, this year a balanced league has coaches pulling out the rules on tiebreakers and juggling their lineups to squeeze out every last point possible. Chicago will be looking to two of its experienced third-years to lead a young squad to another title.

“Most certainly Case has to feel this is their year. NYU is 11–2–1 in duals. They’ve put together a competitive team,” said head coach Leo Kocher, who has led his team to 11 UAA titles in the last 17 years. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us. When you look at the way things line up, we got a really close look at Case this last week. It’s going to be who’s wrestling the best that day.”

The Spartans certainly left an indelible impression at Manchester last weekend, taking the invitational with 112.5 points compared to the third-place Maroons’ 104.5. Case’s depth could make the difference this year, with three returning All-UAA honorees and a heavyweight newcomer that could join that trio with a pair of wins Saturday. Second-year Bob Gavlak got Chicago’s attention last weekend with a weight-class win, and he holds an 18–8 record on the year in the crucial last spot. NYU, which has gone with dual-meet preparation as opposed to entering tournaments, features four wrestlers with at least 20 wins this season.

Kocher, who believes that the Maroons could split their 10 matches against both Case and NYU, has been taking a long look at how he can match his lineup against those two squads. With third-year 184-pounder Ben Barnes’s season cut short due to a broken hand, Kocher’s strategy could include shifting wrestlers out of their natural weight classes in order to create some sort of relative advantage. Lineup decisions may be made as late as after the first match against NYU, when Kocher will be paying attention to how a wrestler does.

“[Changing the lineup] is something we wouldn’t be considering if Ben was in the lineup, but it’s just something we’re considering to try to win,” Kocher said. “You look at where their best performers and weaker performers are. You start calculating how you can get team point scoring advantage by moving people around. I’ve had years in the past where I’ve bumped four wrestlers up because I felt we could win all four matches if we did it that way.”

Third-year Andrew Bribriesco could be one of those wrestlers to shift, as he has split this year between his natural weight at 141 pounds (9–3) as well as a class up at 149 (4–3). The naturally talented veteran has followed up last year’s strong season, in which he dominated a few wrestlers that went to nationals.

A concussion slowed him early on in 2005-2006, but he has rebounded with an unstoppable second half of the season, knocking off seven straight opponents before a last-second mistake last Saturday cost him the Manchester Invite title. Not only expected to lead his team this weekend, Bribriesco is an early favorite to earn a national meet berth at the February 18 regionals to be held at Ratner.

“He’s had some injuries that have kept him from being his best when he needed to be there. He’s always had great potential.

“I will have good competition at UAAs,” said Bribriesco. “I see this as a chance to fine-tune my skills for regionals. I am always looking to improve my technique for competition.”

Third-year Phil Kruzel (15–10), who has been just as reliable of late, has come a long way since the beginning of the year when he feared that a hand injury could keep him out for much of the season. A slow start had him questioning his ability and high expectations.

The turning point may have come December 15 in a pair of dual matches against higher-division competition at Northwestern. Kruzel ended up posting only one win in two bouts on the day, but it came over the Division I Wildcats’ first-year Mark Graves. It was a big spark for a wrestler with a lot of potential, and it showed that the 174-pounder had begun to absorb and utilize some of his coaches’ tactical instructions.

“Self-confidence has been the greatest struggle I’ve dealt with so far this year. I needed to know that I could beat the good people,” Kruzel said. “At the beginning of the season that wasn’t happening and I was getting discouraged. But through improved technique and conditioning I kept going out there and finally things started to click.”

A big adjustment for Kruzel was staying lower to his feet, which he credits with helping him on both the offensive and defensive ends. His counterattack has improved as well, as his positioning has made him less vulnerable to takedowns and more able to take position behind his opponent’s back.

“It’s difficult to be the complete wrestler and to have a strong game in all sorts of situations,” Kocher said. “Any wrestler will tend to stick with what he does best. If they have any vulnerabilities, we try to coach them to eliminate those or turn them into strengths. I just perceive that Phil has made some adjustments that we have really been urging him to make.”

Those two wrestlers may also be significant to their team just in terms of where they are situated in the lineup. As the third or fourth (Bribriesco) and seventh (Kruzel) of 10 matches, they can be critical to stopping opponent rallies or starting their team’s own. Though Kocher wants his wrestlers each going into their match focused on themselves, he understands that a close team can’t help but be affected by momentum.

“I know what I prefer, which is that each guy is out there in his own world—responsible for what goes on on the mat for those seven minutes you’re out there,” Kocher said. “But I do think there can be emotional highs and lows, but I think a big part is not letting those highs and lows affect you.”

In a competitive meet that the Maroons find to be one of the two most important of the year along with regionals, every little mental and tactical advantage could make a difference.