Due to injury and illness, Chicago, ranked 27th in the nation, has had to dip deep into its roster this year to put together another successful season.
Boosted by the return of All-American fourth-year Nick Kehagias, the Maroons demonstrated last Wednesday in Naperville, Illinois just how much strength they have at the top of their lineup. Their 20-18 win over North Central College was, in fact, a remarkable and unusual achievement, as the Cardinals of North Central won six of the 10 matches but came up short nonetheless.
Immediately following the victory, Chicago began a nine-day break which head coach Leo Kocher hopes will give his team much needed rest heading into the UAA Championship this Saturday at the Ratner Athletics Center.
When they held an advantage on Wednesday, the Maroons more than capitalized. All four of their victories were good for at least four points. Along with Kehagias, who scored a major decision, first-year Ben Barnes and third-year Ryan Hlinak pulled off technical falls, and fourth-year Sean Barnes managed a pin. North Central won often but was unable to earn a single bonus point.
At 184 pounds, Ben Barnes wrestled first for the Maroons.
"I was nervous because I had to start it off," Barnes said afterward, but such apprehension was unnecessary. His opponent, Patrick O'Connor, was overmatched and it quickly became a matter of not whether Barnes would win but by how much. After riding O'Connor for most of the first period, Barnes chose to start off the second from a neutral position. From that point he methodically earned takedowns to extend the lead. Then, with 40 seconds left in the third period, he found himself on top of O'Connor, needing two takedowns for a "tech."
"I was pretty tired," said Barnes, "but Coach told me to cut him [let O'Connor escape]." Standing once again in front of an even more exhausted opponent, Barnes did what was needed. He took O'Connor down twicethe second time when only a few seconds remained on the clock.
With the 21-3 victory (a match is called once a grappler takes a 15 point lead, but, as in this case, extra points can still be added for riding time), Chicago was staked to an early 5-0 advantage.
Replacing Barnes on the mat was another Barnes. Visibly inspired by the performance of his younger brother, Sean controlled his match from the outset. At 4:28, he had a pin.
Noted Ben: "The team was expecting big points from certain guys like Sean and Nick and Ryan, and I know that they were all looking for the big points during the match. You could tell. They would give up the takedown, trying to go for the pin."
This was certainly the case with Kehagias. Several times he thought he had his opponent pinned, but the referee thought differently.
"I don't know, I was destroying the guy," Kehagias said. "I ended up beating him by 13 points, but I probably should have at least teched him." He added, "It wasn't bad for my first time back."
The strained LCL that Kehagias suffered two weeks ago at a meet against Elmhurst will still take another week or two to fully heal. Kocher said he didn't notice the knee affecting Kehagias. But Kehagias admitted that the one time he was in bottom position he was "kind of" worried about the injury.
"I ended up getting out, so it was nothing special," he said, "but I just tried not to be down there for too long of a time."
At 125 pounds, Kehagias directly followed Chicago's first string heavy-weight, fourth-year Tim Daly.
After missing a week and a half due to illness, Daly's return to action happened to come against an old nemesis. Two years ago, David Shultz ended Daly's hopes of a national meet invite by defeating him at regionals. Last year, Daly beat Shultz in a dual meet, but an injury in January knocked him out for the rest of the season. On Wednesday, Daly lost to Shultz 3-1 in overtime.
"It was a very close match," said Kocher. "Tim had several near takedowns. He wrestled really well and I wasn't disappointed. I think he very may well beat the guy next time at regionals."
Despite Daly's loss, following Kehagias 19-6 victory, Chicago possessed a 15-3 lead. But the Maroons could muster only one win in the final six matches. That was Ryan Hlinak's dominating and expected 15-0 win by technical fall over Eric Seline at 149 pounds. Of the others, third-year Ai Nguyen was wrestling up a weight class at 133 pounds; second-year Sam Kunkel was once again filling in for the injured Andrew Bribriesco; second-year Dan Steller had wrestled only six matches coming into the meet; second-year Anthony Bribriesco was returning from an injured knee; and, finally, the experienced but struggling third-year Dimitry Shuster entered the match with a 3-11 record.
Nguyen, Kunkel, and Steller all narrowly averted losing by major decisions. Bribriesco lost 6-5 in the closing moments of his match, and Shuster lost 3-1 in overtime.
"We lost two overtime matches and lost another match in the last 30 seconds, so a lot of things didn't go right for us," Kocher said. "But what did go right is that all our guys who lost wrestled tough enough to keep the other team from getting bonus points, and all our big people did the job by going out there and scoring large wins."
With the satisfying but exhausting victory over North Central well behind him, Kocher can now look seriously toward the bigger meet on Saturday. At the Ratner Center, the Maroons will go for their fourth consecutive UAA Championship against their two conference opponents, Case Western University and NYU.
"They're the two most important dual meets of the season," Kocher said. "We always shoot to win them and I will even adjust my schedule to make sure that my best wrestlers peek for this meet. We're going for our 10th since the inaugural. It's nice to win, and you hate to lose it."
He paused and then repeated: "You hate to lose it."