Just two weeks into its season, the University of Chicago wrestling team will compete in its last event before the beginning of winter break. The Maroons will be hosting a dual meet against the Elmhurst College Bluejays in the Henry Crown Field House at 7 P.M. tonight.
Maroons head coach Leo Kocher said, "I'm looking for us to win six out of ten matches." Recent history has been on Chicago's side, with the Maroons having won the past two meetings between the teams.
However, Elmhurst is currently 5-1 overall, and 1-0 in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin. Along with the strong start, the Bluejays also have a new head coach this year. "[Steve Marianetti] was a NCAA Division I champion and also competed on U.S. Open teams," Kocher said. "To have an outstanding competitor as a new head coach certainly helps."
As for today's lineup, Kocher said, "First-year Sam Kunkel will wrestle at 133. We have a lot of wrestlers at 174 and 184. With four athletes at either weight class, it won't be decided up until match time. Otherwise, it will be the same as against Olivet." At that meet, the Maroons started third-year Nick Kehagias at 125, third-year Dale Burke at 141, fourth-year Andy Bugajski at 149, fourth-year Nate Lukanich at 157, third-year Ryan Hlinak at 165, second-year Sean Barnes at 197, and third-year Tim Daly at 285.
Chicago's last meet was at the Concordia Open on November 23. Hosted by Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin, the meet featured 18 teams from the upper Midwest. "This tournament is nice, usually not too tough and we place nine or ten guys. This year was a little different," Kocher said. He explained that seventh-ranked Loras College brought 40 wrestlers, while 12th-ranked University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point took 20 to the tournament. Where in years past 17 or 18 athletes might compete in a weight class, this year it was averaging 25 wrestlers per class. Kocher continued, "Between those two schools and [Division II] UW-Parkside, the tournament became much stronger."
"Everyone wrestled very well. Even the guys getting beat were in very close matches against very good Division II wrestlers."
Five wrestlers advanced to place in the meet, with Hlinak finishing highest for Chicago at second place in the 165-pound weight class. Kehagias and Bugajski placed fourth in the 125- and 149-pound weight classes, respectively.
Barnes finished sixth. "At 197, Sean wrestled the defending Division III national champion from UW-Stevens Point," said Kocher. "It was a real close match. Sean lost to him 3-1, but wrestled at a pretty high level."
Daly took fourth place at 285. "[Daly] wrestled the second-ranked wrestler in Division III. He lost to him in a one-point match when he was scored on with 20 seconds left," Kocher said.
If rankings and sheer numbers did not separate this tournament from years' past, Lukanich's battle in the 157-pound weight class certainly illustrates the difference. As Kocher explained, "Last year, Nate made the finals of this tournament and lost in the finals. This year, the guy he lost to last year wrestled Nate in a consolation match. Two finalists wrestling in consolation to decide who would place, and Nate lost in overtime to last year's champion." The wrestler, Dan Dempsey from UW-Parkside, went on to win the consolation round, taking third place overall.
Even though the Concordia Open did not keep team scores, Kocher believes that the team would have finished fourth behind Loras, UW-Stevens Point, and UW-Parkside.
The Maroon squad has a few new faces in the starting lineup this year. "We have seven starters back from a team that was ranked as high as fifth last year, and that's good," Kocher said. "We have one or two wrestling up a weight class. Hlinak looks very competitive at 165."
In regards to Kunkel starting at 133, Kocher said, "We'll see how things work for him. For a first-year its tough to start at wrestling and do well."
"Everyone's performed well, we just can't afford any injuries."
Over the winter break, the wrestlers will compete over the December 28 weekend at the Midlands Invite, hosted by Northwestern University. The Maroons' first competition after the break will be a dual meet on the road versus Wheaton College on January 13.