The Maroon wrestlers were twisted, manhandled, and schooled by waves of physically superior competition Saturday at the Wheaton Invitationaljust as Chicago head coach Leo Kocher had planned.
But Kocher hadn't traded allegiances or turned against his team. With the Great Lakes Regional upcoming, the Maroons made the 45-minute trip to the Chicago suburb of Wheaton more for a wake-up call than a grab for glory.
Of the 26-team field, seven were athletes on scholarship, a definite indicator of the kind of daunting competition the Maroons were to face. Chicago finished 17th, winning a total 10 matches and losing 21.
The pomp and the recognition came easily the week before when the Maroons trotted to their fourth consecutive UAA Championship, but Kocher knew that the Wheaton Tournament would greatly humble the team and prepare the wrestlers for the difficult February 21 regional tournament ahead. A second-place finish at Regionals would likely mean a trip to the even grander national championship, which will be held on March 5 in Dubuque, Iowa.
"I wanted us to wrestle very tough competition a couple of weeks before the regionals," Kocher said. "Not just for the regionals but for the nationals too. If you're going to place in the NCAAs, you're going to have to beat some pretty tough people, so we searched out some pretty tough people in this tournament to wrestle. I've had wrestlers place third and fourth at the Wheaton and take second in the nation."
One Maroon whose thoughts have certainly wandered westward toward Dubuque is third-year Ryan Hlinak. The only Maroon to place at Wheatonhe took eighth at 149 poundsHlinak has been in top form of late. And he was wrestling as well as he ever has Saturday, until he injured his wrist in the consolation quarterfinals. A good indication of the level of competition he was up against: Anthony Patrizi of Heidelberg College who is ranked sixth nationally in Division III was seeded eighth on Saturday.
Yet Hlinak was still able to secure three victories, including one against the seventh seed, and none of his losses came against a Division III wrestler. Due to the injury to his wrist, he was forced to forfeit the seventh-place match to Patrizi. Now, just when the odds for national glory were looking their best, Hlinak has a wrist in a cast.
Kocher would not reveal the exact nature of the injury. Though he implied that it is serious, he left open the possibility that Hlinak would still be able to wrestle at Regionals, which will be held in Minneapolis.
Despite his success, Hlinak was not one of the two Maroons to be seeded at Wheaton. At 125 pounds, fourth-year Nick Kehagias was seeded third, and at 184 pounds, fourth-year Sean Barnes was seeded fifth. Both wrestlers won their first matches easily. Kehagias won his by a major decision 11-0, while Barnes managed a pin.
They were then derailed by unusually difficult bouts. Kehagias lost 1-0 to an eighth seed, Barnes 3-2 to a fourth seed in a four-overtime, 11-minute marathon.
Kehagias's performance was hindered by a strained LCL. To protect the injured knee, he passed on wrestling in the under position even when it was tactically the best option.
Although Kocher believes that Kehagias is doing the right thing for now, he says that come regionals, Kehagias must wrestle more aggressively.
"He's going to have to. I'm sure he understands that," Kocher said. "He's a senior, so there is no next year. Whatever his injury status is, he'll have to ignore it and just go. We're hopeful that he'll be pretty healed but we'll just have to see."
As for Barnes, Kocher liked his grit during the overtime loss to but was less impressed with his subsequent 4-2 defeat to an unseeded wrestler.
"Sean just had a hard time recovering from that loss and lost his next match when I don't believe he should have. Part of it is being able to bounce back and I'm sure he learned a lesson from that," Kocher said.
Several times his first losing match, Barnes was able to get inside of his opponent, Paul Manning of Concordia University, with good shots. A takedown, however, remained elusive. Because there is a sizable chance that the two will face each other again at regionals, Barnes remains upbeat.
"I just need to work on my finishes," Barnes said. "Neither of us was able to get a takedown in this match, so a takedown will be the deciding factor at regionals." He added, "Things didn't go my way. I ended up leaving the tournament a little earlier than I had thought, but I know most of his weaknesses now and that will be good for me."
Fourth-year heavyweight Tim Daly didn't need Wheaton to become familiar with the tendencies of his second round opponent. Two years ago, North Central College's 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. At a dual meet this year, Daly lost to Shultz 3-1 in overtime, but afterward Kocher predicted that Daly would defeat Shultz if they should meet again.
Sure enough, in the second round, Daly drew Shultz and beat him 2-1. At Minneapolis, Shultz is sure to be looking for some revenge of his own.
He will not be the only one. Minneapolis will be filled wrestlers facing old rivals and settling scores. Wheaton was just a taste of the bitterly fierce competition to come.