Fourth-year Ai Nguyen's shoulder had been plaguing him for days, and during the second period of his 125-pound bout against NYU fourth-year Brian Benson, he could really feel the burn. In a critical match, he was going to need some help from his teammates.
With some strong vocal backing from the Chicago sideline, Nguyen took Benson from his feet to his back, winning by pin and putting the Maroons well on the way to their fifth straight UAA championship. It was the team's 11th league win in 18 years.
The Maroons beat Case Western 30-14 and NYU 26-9 Saturday to clinch the league title in New York City. Nguyen led a crew of four Maroons named to the All-Association squad, with third-year Phil Kruzel (174 pounds), second-year Ben Barnes (184), and fourth-year Sean Barnes (heavyweight).
Nguyen's win over Benson also earned him special recognition, as the UAA coaches named him one of two Most Outstanding Wrestlers, along with NYU third-year Vince Russo.
"We all recognized what a huge development that was. He really shocked the gym that moment," said head coach Leo Kocher, who has presided over all of Chicago's 11 UAA titles. "NYU was very strong at the lighter weight classes, and their strategy was to build up an early lead and hold it. With the bonus points Ai got for winning by fall, even if they swept the next four, that lead wouldn't hold."
Appropriately, Nguyen's electrifying win was pushed along by some strategic off-the-mat support.
"My shoulder was bothering me quite a bit, and I wanted to take injury time. Everybody was screaming at me from the sideline not to do it, so I went back in, and took him down," Nguyen said. "It was great. We were really on the same page this weekend, and we all stepped up."
"He was in pain, he saw the opportunity, and went at Benson hard," Kocher said. "He really got things rolling for us."
Two bouts later, second-year Andrew Bribriesco overcame NYU second-year Gene Kobilansky, the reigning UAA 141-pound champion and the 2004 Rookie of the Year, for an 8-6 win.
While second-years Jason Besse and Paul Kremsky dropped their matches at 149 and 157 pounds to let NYU tie at nine, Mike Bishof won his 165-pound bout in double overtime, and the rout was on.
Kruzel, Ben Barnes, second-year Drew Marriott and Sean Barnes all came out on top, with only Marriott facing a serious challenge at 197 pounds.
"It wasn't that tense. I had a lot of confidence in the heavier weight classes," Nguyen said.
The meet win clinched the championship, coming on top of a forfeit-aided win over Case Western. While the Spartans won four of seven contested matches for a 14-12 lead, injuries prevented them from competing at 125 pounds, 133 pounds, or 184 pounds.
"It puts you in a tough spot, being down 18 to start the meet," said Kocher of Case's three forfeits. "That affected us, too. We came out a little flat. It's hard to get up for that."
Chicago also rested several starters. First-year 133-pounder Brandon Tillman moved up to the 141 bracket, allowing Bribriesco to rest up for Kobilansky, and fourth-year Dmitry Shuster subbed for Phil Kruzel at 174 pounds.
Tillman lost to 2005 UAA Rookie of the Year Geoff Protz, while Shuster won a 6-2 decision over first-year Nathan Klingensmith.
"Dmitry and Phil are pretty close talent-wise, and Andrew has a high ankle sprain. If you can give guys a chance to wrestle and avoid the risk of further injury and fatigue, you should do it," Kocher said.
While four All-UAA selections is a drop from last year's five, both Besse and Bishof lost close matches that cost them spots, and holding out Bribriesco against Case likely denied him a shot.
"[Besse's] been hurt, too, and he's lost a lot of practice time," Kocher said.
"Mike dropped a 5-4 decision to Mike Sanchez from Case, who's a tough competitor. He beat Sanchez in a one-point overtime match at the Concordia tournament, and he was penalized a point for stalling here that was undeserved.
"Besides, Bishof and Bribriesco both came through in the bouts we needed to win for the league title."
The two dual-meet wins mark the end of team competition for the 24th-ranked Maroons, leaving them with a final record of 6-4. All four of the team's losses were against nationally ranked teams, and two wins came over ranked Wabash and Olivet.
"It's a fine record. We wrestled six nationally ranked teams in 10 meets, and we beat everyone else. We had a tough schedule," Kocher said.
Chicago now enters a different phase of its season. With only the Wheaton Invite and the NCAA Regional meet left guaranteed on the schedule, practices will shift focus to individual wrestlers.
"We'll be doing less team drill and working more on what the guys will use for the rest of the season. There's no point in having anyone doing work on techniques they won't be able to use before the NCAA qualifiers," Kocher said.
The team will send only its starters to the prestigious Wheaton tournament this weekend, an important preparatory event for the NCAA All-Region meet February 19.
"It's a tough meet, with between 24 and 28 teams. We've had wrestlers place lower at Wheaton than they did at the national meet a month later. It's extremely competitive," Kocher said.
"Winning most outstanding [UAA wrestler] is a little boost of confidence," Nguyen said. "But Wheaton's the big test. We're focusing on the tough ones to come, and looking for some high placers."