April 27, 2007

King of the mat Kruzel made most of big switch

Talent alone can’t always propel an athlete to victory. But fused with patience and determination, it can make any competitor a force to be reckoned with.

In a manner befitting his patient yet forceful demeanor on the mat, fourth-year Phil Kruzel culminated his sparkling U of C wrestling career this past March by winning All-American recognition at NCAAs. The first Maroon to bring home All-American honors since Bill Kopecky (A.B. ’03) in 2001, Kruzel closed the books on a journey from humble beginnings and quiet victories by claiming one of the top honors for a college athlete.

His accomplishments at the championships proved to be the pinnacle of success for the Elmhurst native, whose road to fame was never guaranteed, and demonstrate how much potential teamwork and focused attitude can bring out of a grappler.

Arriving at the U of C and joining a pack of accomplished and promising wrestlers didn’t provide immediate gratification for the Fenwick graduate. While he made a name for himself on his high school team and was ranked in the top 10 in his weight class in Illinois, Kruzel failed to reach the state tourney, an accomplishment he wished he had ridden in on as a recruit.

“I kind of felt that I underperformed a little bit,” Kruzel said. “I was probably one of the only recruits [on the team] that hadn’t made it to state tournament. I wanted to do something that would eclipse that performance in high school, and get to a point where I could be at my full capability.”

With perseverance and an open mind, Kruzel battled back and forth his first year for a starting spot, filling in for Dimitry Shuster (A.B. ’05) in the 174-pound class. By season’s end, he had managed to permanently crack the lineup. Taking on one goal at a time, Kruzel made a name for himself on what was then the fiercest squad in the UAA, featuring an array of dominant fourth-years.

“I was exposed to a winning culture from them,” said Kruzel of the seniors. “I got the experience I would need down the road.”

Throughout his next two seasons, Kruzel excelled across the board in tourneys and heads-up matches, compiling 20 wins each year to establish himself as a hardened veteran.

Despite his successes at 174, Kruzel always had to put all of his strength and weight out on the mat when facing the region’s top-notch grapplers in his class. After recognizing his potential if he moved down one bracket to the 165-pound class, Kruzel and head coach Leo Kocher discussed the possibilities of a switch.

“Coach Kocher told me straight out that he thought I had the best shot at doing something special at 165,” Kruzel said. “If we hadn’t had that conversation last year, I don’t know if I would have had the initiative to do it on my own. He kept my attitude in the right spot and didn’t let me get too cocky or overconfident.”

If he could pull it off, a drop down in weight classes could be just what the doctor ordered for Kruzel to wrestle at his peak. Weighing just a few pounds over the 174 mark, Kruzel was often at a natural disadvantage.

“It was kind of a realization that this was my last chance to do something better than average,” Kruzel said. “The matches that I was losing my first three years were usually to guys who were bigger and stronger than I was, guys who had dropped down from 190 or so. I figured that at 165, I could be as fast I was before but even stronger.”

The move paid off. After trading places with classmate Mike Bishof to start out his fourth year, Kruzel rocketed to victory upon victory, building a jaw-dropping record of 18–1 going into the team’s match against North Central in late January. Heading into the meet as the nation’s fifth-ranked 165-pounder, Kruzel took care of the Cardinals’ Ben Young 9–5 in the Maroons’ 24–22 come-from-behind win.

“I always had it in my head that by the time we were all seniors, we were going to be incredible,” Kruzel said. “We had so many great freshmen when I came in, and I figured that we were going to be unstoppable. Injuries kind of prevented that from happening. It was frustrating even though I was having individual success, but the team always supported me, and I kind of saw myself as the leader.”

Two weeks later, it all came together for Chicago. On the backs of solid performances by Kruzel’s teammates, including all the regular senior starters, the Maroons clinched their sixth UAA title in seven years, with Kruzel and four other Chicago grapplers winning their weight classes. The die was cast: Kruzel was well on his way to Nationals.

Kruzel prides himself on what has been called—although Kruzel and his coaches disagree—an “unconventional” style of wrestling, in which he forces opponents to wrestle his kind of match. Without any set battery of special moves, his key to success on the mat has been marked by consistent on-foot wrestling.

“Phil dominates on his feet,” head coach Leo Kocher said. “He’s not dependent on his opponent. If you’re going to come to him, you’re wrestling his style.”

Kruzel managed to stick to the basics and to keep absolute faith in his strengths on the mat, strategies that paid off at the culmination of his training and experience in the DIII college wrestling world.

Kruzel’s teammates and coaches gave him an extremely supportive environment that enabled him to convert the talents he always had into towering accomplishments on paper. Learning important lessons from coaches such as Kocher and assistants Joe Bochenski and Oscar Santiago, Kruzel evolved into a patient and flexible grappler who took one step at a time on his way to becoming a de facto team leader. Determination and adaptability proved to be the key themes of Kruzel’s success.

“Phil was a yeoman who stuck with it, won a lot of matches, and at the end, managed to peak in his last year at the NCAA tournament,” Kocher said. “It was a strong ‘sticking with it,’ and things working out.”