The memory of last season’s beating still fresh in their minds, Chicago’s wrestlers snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with an 11th-hour comeback.
Avenging the 28–9 defeat suffered last January and thrilling the Wednesday night crowd at Ratner, the Maroons never held the advantage until the final bout but did all the right things down the stretch to take down North Central 24–22.
Down four going into the heavyweight bout, the Maroons had little margin for error if they wanted to come away with a victory. A standard win by second-year Tom Nero would only score three points. To tie the score, Nero had to win a major, or he could win it with a pin. Within a minute, the sound of two nearly 300-pound wrestlers hitting the mat sent the home spectators to their feet, as Nero hit a throw and put his opponent to his back. Knowing that he needed the pin, Nero closed the deal not even two minutes into the match, clinching the 24–22 win for Chicago and bringing the squad’s final dual meet to a thrilling conclusion.
“It feels good to be on the winning side tonight,” fourth-year captain Phil Kruzel said. “Tom came through huge for us, and it feels great knowing we can count on the upper part of our lineup to wrap things up.”
Unlike most of the season, in which Chicago has consistently been at a disadvantage due to holes in its lineup, Wednesday night’s match put the Maroons on even footing with their opponents. Although Chicago had vacancies at 125 and 149, North Central was forced to forfeit at 141 and 174, meaning only six matches would be wrestled in the shortened meet.
In the meet’s first contested bout, second-year Ben Hart, who earned UAA Athlete of the Week honors Tuesday for his performance at the Elmhurst Invite, couldn’t manage much against North Central’s top wrestler. Taking on sixth-ranked third-year Adam Johnson, Hart struggled on bottom and lost 11–2 despite taking some deep shots.
After both squads traded forfeits at 141 and 149, first-year Troy Carlson faced another challenge in North Central fourth-year Robert Gingrich at 157. Carlson dropped the match 8–3 to Gingrich, who has spent time in the national rankings this season, but managed to keep the score a minor decision, thus preserving team points and making the score 19–6 in favor of the Cardinals—a sizable deficit but far from decisive.
Giving Chicago its first win of the night, Kruzel was dominant on his feet at 165. Ranked fifth in his weight class in the most recent NCAA coach’s poll, Kruzel has not lost a match since the first day of the season. Considered one of the most aggressive wrestlers on the team, he has been winning bouts without spending any time on the mat.
“It feels good to be ranked; it feels good to get that respect, especially going into the more competitive part of the season,” Kruzel said after the match. “I’m going to try to keep it up as we get into UAAs and Regionals.”
With Kruzel’s win and the forfeit at 174, Chicago crept closer on the score sheet, trailing 19–15 going into 184. After a strong showing Saturday at Elmhurst, second-year Justin Lucas earned the starting nod over fourth-year Ben Barnes but was unable to make any headway against first-year Gabe Youel. Lucas lost the match 7–3, making the team score 15–22 heading into the penultimate bout. The seven-point deficit meant that for Chicago to even stay alive in the contest, they needed a win at 197.
More than up to the challenge, though, was fourth-year Drew Marriot. Needing a win, he started off the match with a fireman’s carry, a move that has been a staple for him throughout his career. After he gave up escapes in the first and second periods, though, the match was again tied 2–2. Picking bottom in the third period, Marriot managed a reversal and gave up another escape, making it 4–3. Marriot sealed the win with a final takedown, sending Chicago within four with only the one match to go and setting up Nero’s heroics.
Wednesday’s triumph was an important win for the home side, which has lost to North Central each of the past two seasons.
“They’re not ranked, but they probably should be,” head coach Leo Kocher said. “I wish we had had more than six matches. I would have liked to see fourth-year Mike Bishof get a chance to wrestle, but we’re glad to get the win.”
In the squad’s final competition before the UAA Championships February 3, the Maroons will travel to Barnes’s hometown of Wheaton today for the two-day Wheaton Invite. One of the more challenging tournaments on a difficult regular-season schedule, the event will give Chicago another crack at the Cardinals and present more stiff competition for Kruzel as he attempts to stay undefeated heading into the postseason.
Coming next Friday: UAA Championship preview.