After taking a number of early hits, wrestling is beginning to realize its potential at just the right time.
Paired off against some heavy-duty opponents in the rigorous Wheaton Invite last weekend, the Maroons showed signs of being ready to take on the prime competition promised by UAAs and the NCAA regionals. Led by fourth-years Phil Kruzel and Mike Bishof, Chicago landed a 13th-place finish out of 29 teams in one of the toughest tournaments of the regular season.
“Wheaton is a great tune-up,” head coach Leo Kocher said. “You can have as many as four or five matches the first day and then three matches the second day. It’s a long tournament with a lot of matches against good competition.”
In a tourney that included seven nationally ranked DIII squads and two more from DII, the Maroons went into Wheaton with Kruzel, Bishof, and second-year Tom Nero all expecting to grab spots among the top eight of their weight classes. The fifth-ranked Kruzel matched his second-place seed while Bishof surpassed his predicted sixth-place finish by taking fifth. Nero suffered an injury during his second bout and needed to be pulled before making a run at meeting his fifth-seed expectations.
It is uncertain at this point when Nero will be back on the mat, but losing him at this critical point of the season is particularly bad news for Chicago. The squad is just starting to reach full strength after grappling with an injury-ravaged roster for most of the year. The heavyweight has been one of the most consistent top finishers this year and struck the final blow against North Central on Wednesday, sealing the deal in the Maroons’ 24–22 win over the Cardinals. His absence from the line-up would be a major setback for the team, putting pressure on teammates to make up for the lost points down the final stretch.
So far evading the injury bug, Bishof and Kruzel were able to continue their string of strong outings, posting 4–2 and 4–1 records for the weekend with impressive decisions in the placing rounds.
In a hard-fought battle with an old foe, the 165-pound Kruzel reached the title round in a particularly strong class after pulling out a double-overtime win in the semis.
“Phil seemed to be in great shape and did what he had to do to win the match in the end,” Kocher said. “I don’t like seeing matches that close, but I do like to see my athletes having the conditioning and the smarts to pull out really tight matches like that.”
Unfortunately, Kruzel’s fitness and quick wits would not be enough to take down UW–Lacrosse third-year Tim Palmer, who’s unranked at the moment but has toppled DI opponents and will likely be considered among the nation’s best after NCAAs. He got the better part of Kruzel with a 10–4 victory.
Also taking on his share of experienced wrestlers, the 174-pound Bishof squared off against two DII rivals, losing 8–2 to eventual champion Indianapolis fourth-year Mike Jackson, but edging UW–Parkside fourth-year Albert Morgan 3–2 en route to his fifth-place finish.
“Mike and Phil lost to absolute wrestlers, but I also think they came away with something because they made some adjustments in the match, and I think it will prepare them for matches in the future. So I was pleased with their efforts,” Kocher said.
First-year Troy Carlson, one of the squad’s recently returnees, rounded out Chicago’s notable performances at Wheaton. Back from a wrist injury that relegated him to the sidelines for four weeks, the rookie just missed out on fighting for a place in the top eight.
From here the Maroons prepare to host the league championships this Saturday, where they hope to get a boost from some veterans making their return to the mat. Fourth-year Drew Marriott is available after being out for a month, while second-year Zach Matayoshi and fourth-year Andrew Bribriesco are ready for action after healing dislocated elbows.
“We’re hoping to be pretty close to full strength for UAAs. We had a stretch there where we lost some important people, and we’re getting them back. Injuries can play a role, but I feel if we wrestle well, we have a real chance of winning the conference meet,” Kocher said.