Every wrestler at the University of Chicago shares a simple goal, and fourth-year Ryan Hlinak put it directly: "Qualify for nationals," he explained, "and hopefully be All-American."
At the Great Lakes Regional, Hlinak claimed the 149-pound title and ensured himself a spot in the NCAA Division III National Championship.
After winning his final match, he was gleefully walking off the mat. He greeted assistant coach Joe Bochenski with a broad hug, and turned next toward head coach Leo Kocher, who offered him a few words and received a hug in return.
"He says, Oh, go up to the stands and give your parents a hug" Hlinak said later, "and I said, well, how 'bout you first.'"
"He was one happy cowboy," said Kocher with a chuckle.
When Hlinak bounded up the stairs to meet his parents, he left behind teammates who had vicariously lived through his triumph. By the end of the tournament, they would have to resign themselves to the fact that the same triumphant scene was not in store for them.
While a number of high finishes by Maroon wrestlers helped Chicago take fifth place out of 16 teams, only Hlinak will be making the trip on Thursday, March 4 to Dubuque, Iowa for the NCAA's .
A couple of Maroons came agonizingly close. Both third-year Sean Barnes, at 197 pounds, and heavyweight, fourth-year Tim Daly lost early-round matches. But they both swept through the wrestle-back bracket to secure a bout against the loser of the first-place match for a chance at "true second" and a national championship birth.
Barnes was tied with his opponent 2-2 before the match got away from him. Daly, whose earlier defeat was a narrow 2-1 decision to the eventual champion, lost the final match of his college wrestling career by a takedown in the last minute.
Fourth-year Nick Kehagias was another Maroon to suffer disappointment. A returning All-American at 125 pounds, Kehagias will be unable to claim that title for a second time. He wrestled to a fifth-place finish, while still feeling the ill effects of an injured knee that he suffered in early January.
"We were hoping against hope that he would be 100 percent at the regional, but it didn't happen," Kocher said.
He added: "I will say this about Nick. He placed eighth in the country. He was an NCAA All-American the 21st All-American since I've been here, four-time UAA champion, voted outstanding wrestler in 2003. Obviously, Nick's won a lot of big matches for us."
Making it to nationals gives a wrestler a special place in the illustrious hall of fame that exists in Kocher's memory, one that covers 25 successful years of Chicago wrestling. And now a new Maroon can claim a spot.
Hlinak, who himself was recovering from a mild wrist injury, said that he immediately knew he had "a decent shot" of making it to the finals when he saw the 149-pound bracket posted; his likely semifinal opponent was Matt Kuschert, an Elmhurst wrestler whom he had beaten earlier in the year.
He was cautiously optimistic and could sense a possible victory when the bracket developed according to the predictable pattern, and he was faced with Kuschert in the semis.
"Elmhurst has a real good coach," he said. "A lot of times they wrestle a lot better the second time you wrestle them."
But it was Hlinak who did more to lift up his game. While in his first match against Kuschert, he had struggled to escape, this time he controlled the match on the mat as well as from the neutral position. He even earned points for riding time, bringing the final score to 4-1.
A tougher task yet lay ahead. In the finals, he ran up against one of the ubiquitous wrestlers from Augsberg College, the second-ranked squad in the nation that routinely dominates the Great Lakes Region and sends scores of wrestlers to the NCAAs every year.
On Saturday, Augsberg continued the trend by capturing seven weight-class championships. But thanks to Hlinak's 7-4 decision over Dustin Dahlblom, 149 pounds was one weight-class that Augsberg could not claim.
Hlinak took Dahlblom down early with a quick and effective low single finished with a double leg. He rode Dahlblom out for the rest of the first period, preventing him from getting an easy escape point and cutting the lead in half.
Dahlblom chose to start the second kneeling and escaped to score his first point. Then, with the seconds winding down on the period, Hlinak barely fought off a vicious low shot by Dahlblom. At this point, Hlinak was confident that he could escape in the third, and having wrestled mistake-free the entire tournament, he was feeling good about his chances overall. In fact, he was riding a tidal wave of momentum that began to form as far back as early January.
According to Kocher, it was at the National Duals Tournament that Hlinak transformed himself from a solid wrestler to top man.
"He wrestled some really excellent matches, five really strong matches against really good competition," Kocher recalled, and Hlinak only seemed to improve from there.
What Chicago wrestling fans were witnessing was the emergence of an enormous talent that had long been sacrificed for the good of the team. For most of his career, Hlinak was forced to wrestle up or down a weight class because more experienced wrestlers filled his preferable slot at 149.
Against a comfortable, aggressive Hlinak, Dahlblom was helpless. Hlinak not only escaped to start the third, he reversed Dahlblom to his back. With Hlinak awarded two points for the reversal, and two more for the near fall, the match was over, and Hlinak's season stayed alive.