January 14, 2005

Big upsets have wrestlers looking upward

Individually, it was an uplifting night for Chicago's Barnes brothers. But in the end, they were reminded that sometimes upsets and last-minute heroics aren't enough.

Fourth-year heavyweight Sean Barnes scored a late takedown for a 6-4 win and second-year 184-pounder Ben Barnes notched a quality upset over Division III's second-ranked Matt Sassolino, but the Maroons dropped their final dual meet of the season 21-14 to 12th-ranked Elmhurst at home on Wednesday.

"It's a tough team. They beat 26th-ranked Augustana 29-3 earlier this year. I was happy with our effort," said head coach Leo Kocher, whose squad came into the match 28th in the nation and 4-3. "Our wins were good wins, against good athletes, and our losses were close. The meet was in reach, and that's what we wanted."

Fourth-year Ai Nguyen won by technical fall at 125 pounds, and first-year Brandon Tillman pulled out a 5-4 comeback victory over noted Bluejay Jeff Kastel at 133 pounds. The Maroons dropped several tight decisions with second-year 149-pounder Jason Besse falling 4-3, fourth-year 174-pounder Dmitry Shuster losing 3-1, and second-year 197-pounder Drew Marriott coming up on the short end of a 5-4 match with Elmhurst's Nick Metcalf.

"All three of our fourth-years started in their last home meet, and they all performed well. The rest of the team was tuned in to that, and wanted to send them off with a strong effort," Kocher said.

Tillman's victory against strong competition was particularly notable. The win was his first in dual meet competition, bringing a hint of future optimism to Senior Night at Ratner. Tillman had come close to his first dual-meet victory the night before, falling 2-0 in overtime in a 35-7 Maroon win at Wheaton.

"We beat some of their better people, but the Wheaton meet went pretty much as we expected," Kocher said.

The Maroons finished out the dual meet season at 4-4, going 2-4 against teams that have been nationally ranked at some point this year.

"You know what, it's a hard schedule, and that's not the wrestlers' fault. That's the coach's fault," said Kocher, now in his 24th year at the University. "A strong schedule is fine with me. I want our guys to have high expectations and to be used to wrestling the best. What we've brought to these meets really shows the strength of our program."

The team now turns its attention to this weekend's North Central Invite, where they will send 15 wrestlers to face at least six nationally ranked teams. Historically a top-tier tournament, the invite will feature athletes from Elmhurst, 27th-ranked North Central, and a 19th-ranked Coe team that punctuated its victory at the Cornell (IA) Invite this past weekend with a 43-0 score over 26th-ranked Augustana.

"It's going to be hard, but we had eight placers at Cornell, and I think we're capable of doing that again," Kocher said.

The elder Barnes brother in particular has the potential to do some damage. This week's action improved Sean's win streak to nine, and he has appeared in the finals of three tournaments so far, beating sixth-ranked Bryan Morgan to win the heavyweight class at Cornell last Saturday. He has beaten a number of other quality opponents, though several defeats may be keeping him from the rankings.

"Sean needs to get a little more consistency going, and needs to be at the top of his game for every match," Kocher said. "He could be a top seed in this tournament, and we're looking at him and Ben to contend."

After North Central, the team will look to get back to routine practice after a whirlwind post-break schedule. By the time the Maroons board the bus for the ride back to Chicago on Saturday, the Maroons will have wrestled three dual meets and two tournaments—a total of six days of competition—in nine days.

"We'll be doing a little more practicing, looking to fine tune for Manchester and for dual meet competition at the UAA Championship," Kocher said. "The schedule slows down a bit, but we want to be rested and ready for the big tournaments ahead."