For most of the wrestling team, Saturday's regional meet capped the end of a succesful season. For fourth-year heavyweight Sean Barnes, there's still one big weekend to go.
Barnes went 4-0 to win his weight class and qualify for the national championship tournament as the Maroons finished 7th in a field of 15 teams at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional. Barnes, seeded fourth, beat Augsburg fourth-year Mark Simmonds, who was ranked fourth nationally at the time, 4-3 and scored a takedown in the first overtime period to clinch the championship against Elmhurst second-year Ward Brady 3-1.
"He was our best chance, and he wasn't even projected to qualify. He really wrestled well. It's an extraordinary accomplishment," head coach Leo Kocher said.
As the fourth seed in his bracket, Barnes, who is now 30-8 as a heavyweight after three years at 197 pounds, had a tough road to the title. After a win by default, the fourth-year pulled out a 5-3 decision against fifth-seeded first-year Jaran Rutledge of Knox College and was rewarded by a shot at Simmonds. The Augsburg heavyweight finished fourth in the heavyweight bracket at nationals last year, but Barnes had a can't-miss strategy.
"Sean decided he wanted to get Simmonds to wrestle for seven minutes on his feet, and keep him away from the mat. He did, and Sean pressed his advantage on his feet to beat him," Kocher said.
"If I can beat him, I'm doing something right," Barnes said.
In the championship bout, Barnes faced a rubber match against Brady, with whom he had split a pair this season. He made his past experiences count in the overtime win.
"I knew that I would beat him if I escaped at the beginning of the third period. I did, and from there it was a waiting game until I felt like I could take him down."
Barnes now turns his attention to the Div. III National championship meet at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota on March 4-5. The fourth-year is training hard, wrestling against a rotation of his brother, second-year 184-pounder Ben Barnes, and second-year 197-pounder Drew Marriott. He will begin to taper Tuesday to rest up for the tournament.
Both Barnes and Kocher have high hopes for success in what should be a tough field.
"My goal is to come back with some hardware," Barnes said.
"He beat the fourth-best guy in the nation, he's definitely capable of placing. If he wrestles as well as he did Saturday, I like his chances to be an All-American," Kocher said.
Barnes led a quartet of Maroons placers on the weekend. Second-years Mike Bishof and Phil Kruzel finished fifth at 165 and 174 pounds, and their classmate 141-pounder Andrew Bribriesco finished sixth. Bribriesco defaulted in the fifth place match against St. John's fouth-year Nate Lefebvre due to injury.
"The guys who wrestled all did fine. Our guys finished about where they should have or better than their seeds," Kocher said.
Beset by injuries, the team finished with 87.5 points, just 24 points out of third place. Four ranked squads finished ahead of the Maroons, including meet winner first-ranked Augsburg, seventh-ranked Elmhurst in second place, 28th-ranked St. John's in fourth, and 27th-ranked Augustana in fifth.
"We were hurt by losing fourth-year 125-pounder Ai Nguyen, who didn't wrestle because of the injury he suffered at the Wheaton Invite. Bribriesco had to default his last one, second-year Jason Besse was on the way to placing but got hurt and had to default. It hurt us," Kocher said. "We might have been able to go higher. But the teams that beat us are all clearly ahead of us."
With the exception of Barnes, the season is wrapped up for the Maroons, who finish with a 6-4 dual-meet record. While the team fell out of the most recent national rankings, it was a fixture in the polls for most of the year. Chicago also won its fifth straight UAA Championship with dual-meet victories over NYU and Case on January 29.
"We faced six ranked teams in eight non-conference meets, and we went 2-4 against them. We started seven sophomores and a freshman in 10 lineup spots. Under the circumstances, I think we were a pretty competitive team," Kocher said. "We were consistently at a high level. The majority of our guys had performances this season that indicated that there is no reason that they can't be the best wrestlers in Div. III. They all had their moments."
With a solid year's experience under the belts of this young squad, the prospects for next season look good. The Maroons will return eight starters.
"We were ranked 24th in the country with this team. Anytime you can return eight guys from a team like that, you're going to have pretty high expectations for the next year," Kocher said. "We're hoping to get some help from new recruits, but our outlook is pretty positive."
"The whole team really stepped up this year. Brandon Tillman made great strides at 133. Since I've been here, that has been the hardest weight for Coach Kocher to fill, and it's nice to see a first-year take that spot and really make it his own," Barnes said. "Mike Bishof had a great sophomore season after being injured most of last year. The team is young, and hopefully they feel like they learned a lot. They should be fun to watch over the next couple years."