For wrestling, the league championships from two weekends ago marked an encouraging turnaround for a program that once dominated the competition. A year after losing the meet for the first time this century, the Maroons took back the title on the strength of a quartet of seniors who won individual titles.
With a team of grizzled vets, it would be easy for first-year Troy Carlson to go unnoticed. Already this season, 9 of the 10 rookies on the opening-day roster faded into the background, either quitting the team or missing time due to injury. But Carlson, a starter since the opening meet, overcame the initial trials to carve a niche for himself on a crowded roster as one of the squad’s most reliable athletes and a breakout performer.
“We definitely expected him to pull his weight because Illinois produces tough wrestlers,” second-year Jack Toussaint said. “He had proven himself in high school, and during the preseason practices, he showed us what he could do. I think he’s definitely raised team morale by exceeding our expectations.”
While the UAA is far from the powerhouse in wrestling that it is in sports like swimming and women’s volleyball, Carlson’s performance at the league championships February 3 at Ratner marked the crowning achievement of a young career that promises to get only better. Competing at 157, Carlson earned his conference stripes by taking down a pair of veteran foes. In Chicago’s opening match of the round robin, the Cary, IL native just squeaked by Case fourth-year Russ Tischer 4–3 in a back-and-forth contest.
“My match against Case, I was wrestling a pretty tough kid,” Carlson said. “I think I got the first takedown in the first period, and then I did get thrown to my back. But then I reversed him and got out of a possible pin. In the third period, I got turned and barely squeezed out a victory. But a close one’s better than a loss, so I was happy with that.”
While the opening match demonstrated his ability to respond to top competition, Carlson stepped up to outside pressures in the championship bout against NYU. With his team having dropped three of the first four decisions, Carlson needed a win to keep his team in contention. He stepped up in a big way, earning a 20–6 major decision over NYU third-year Nathan Meyer in a must-win match for Chicago, which went on to win in a nail-biting finish. The undefeated record (2–0) and individual title was enough to net Carlson UAA Rookie of the Year honors.
“The NYU kid, it was pretty close in the first few periods, he made a few points, and then I sort of got into his head a little bit,” Carlson said. “He didn’t seem like he wanted to wrestle me by the end of the match.”
The UAA meet was the crowning moment in a season that has not always gone smoothly for Carlson. After a distinguished high school career, Carlson struggled in his first few starts for the Maroons, receiving a rude awakening to the college level at the hands of DIII power Cornell (IA) and Northwestern, at the time the sixth-ranked program in DI.
“I think [at] the beginning of the season, I was just real nervous, not sure what to expect coming into college and also nervous that I was starting,” Carlson said. “It kinda put some pressure on me, and I think I got more comfortable at this level toward the end of the season, and that’s the goal of every wrestler: to peak at the end. So hopefully that’s what happens over the weekend.”
The presence of so many upperclassmen helped take some of the pressure off as the season progressed for the youngster. With teammates like fourth-year Phil Kruzel rising into the national ranking and carrying an undefeated record late into the season, Carlson was given room to grow into his position, and the increased competition in practice further acclimated him to the NCAA.
“It gives you more experience right off the bat,” Carlson said. “They’ve been wrestling in the varsity lineup for two or three or four years, and I think it’s really beneficial, rather than wrestling a lot of first-years and younger people. They’ve been around, they know what works and what doesn’t work, and it’s definitely rubbing off on me.”
Carlson and the Maroons will need to be running on all cylinders if they want to continue their recent success this weekend. They will take on four nationally ranked programs, led by second-ranked Augsburg and the host, seventh-ranked Elmhurst. The Maroons will face stiff competition at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional, which will provide each Chicago wrestler with some of the biggests tests all season. While an individual championship guarantees a qualification for Nationals, there is always the possibility that a wrestler will perform to the best of his abilities and still fail to make the cut.
“We had a great week of practice,” Carlson said. “We all wrestled really hard. It’s just a matter of staying tough in every match, I guess. There’s obviously good people at every weight class, so we just gotta wrestle one match at a time and try to wrestle as close to perfect each time.”