As the season winds down, the competition is heating up for the Maroons, as Sean Barnes discovered against his toughest foe yet.
The fourth-year heavyweight was pinned in 5:36 by top-ranked third-year Ryan Allen of Wisconsin-Lacrosse, but bounced back to score a fifth place finish at the prestigious Wheaton Invite Saturday. He was one of four placers for Chicago, which came in ninth in a field of 27 squads.
Barnes went 3-2 on the weekend, dropping his match with Allen and his third bout of the season against third-year Bryan Morgan of Millikin University.
"At this meet, it was all about the quality of wrestling against quality opponents. It's nice to win, but what matters is how you wrestle," head coach Leo Kocher said. "There were six outstanding wrestlers in that weight class, and Allen is probably the most dominant heavyweight ever in Division III."
While most of Barnes' teammates were not facing off against history, there were few easy wins for the Maroons. The Pete Wilson Wheaton Invitational is one of the toughest tournaments of the season, featuring eight ranked Div. III teams and two Div. II squads. Wrestlers regularly finish worse at the Wheaton Invite than at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional meet two weeks later. Chicago, now ranked 24th in Div. III, finished behind both of the higher division teams and six ranked squads from their own level. 18th ranked Ohio Northern finished five places behind the Maroons.
"There's a lot of All-Americans, a lot of ranked wrestlers in each weight class," Kocher said. "There's also a lot of teams period. It's a quality tourney."
"I think our team standing is probably fairly close to where we fit-in in the division. We weren't too far from 28th ranked Augustana, 20th ranked Wabash. We're all banging away at each other."
Joining Barnes in emerging from the fray were second-years Andrew Bribriesco and Phil Kruzel, who finished fourth at 141 pounds and sixth at 184 pounds respectively, and second-year 197-pounder Drew Marriott, who finished eighth.
"You know, [second-years] Mike Bishof and Jason Besse lost heartbreakers right before bouts for place," Kocher said. "Besides that, four placers is still three more than we had last year. We got what we hoped to get out of the tournament, a strong challenge in every weight class."
The team's hopes to do more damage were hurt by a poor outing by second-year Ben Barnes, who went 1-2 at 184 pounds, and more injury trouble for UAA championship hero Ai Nguyen. The fourth-year 125-pounder hurt his ankle losing his first match, and tore cartilage in his ribs in dropping his second. He had previously been fighting with nerve trouble in his shoulder.
"Ben is just struggling a little right now, period," Kocher said. "and there's nothing you can do about the injuries. There were a lot of forfeits due to injury at the tournament. We didn't have any, but we probably could have. It's high-level, intense competition, and it's a bit of a grind.
"Ai's a senior, so he'll probably find a way to get back in for the All-Region meet."
The Great Lakes Regional meet, held February 19 in Minneapolis, is the last stand for most of the Maroons. The tournament serves to determine qualifying spots for the NCAA Division III Championship March 4.
"It's very tough to get in every year," Kocher said. "The Barnes brothers have beaten nationally-ranked wrestlers, and really four or five of our guys have competed well against ranked opponents, either beating them or being in position to beat them. Still, I'm not sure any of our guys will be seeded in the top three."
The meet features 16 teams, including top-ranked Augsburg, which has finished either first or second in the nation for 10 straight years. 21 individual wrestlers will advance to the nationals, including the 10 weight class champions and 11 wild card berth winners.
"Realistically, you've got to finish in one of the top two spots to go. Four to six of our guys should place in the top six, but we'll just have to see who can crack the top two," Kocher said. "Who knows who's going to have a good day? Any one of several guys, if they put their most outstanding tournament together, are capable of grabbing a spot."