January 31, 2006

“Bad luck” catches up with wrestling to end long reign atop league

It’s a fact of life: Dynasties don’t last forever. While that may be reassuring to underdogs, it’s not what an ambitious wrestling squad wanted to hear over the weekend.

The Maroons’ (3–7) five-year reign as UAA conference champions came to a sudden end in Cleveland Saturday, as they dropped a tough pair of dual meets, falling 29–6 to eventual-champion NYU (13–2–1) and 19–16 to Case (1–2) for an overall third-place finish. The Violets emerged with their first UAA crown since 2000 and their third in team history, going 2–0 on the day.

As with several of this season’s meets, the team’s first match against NYU was painfully close, even if that was not reflected in the final team score. Third-years Phil Kruzel (wrestling up a weight class at 184 pounds) and Andrew Bribriesco (141 pounds) both lost in sudden-death overtime by two-point margins. First-year 157-pounder Spencer Burns’ bout against Violets second-year Takafumi Hashimoto was tied 8–8 with 10 seconds to go, and after nearly completing a takedown for the win, Burns made one wrong turn that swung the bout to Hashimoto, resulting in a 12–8 final.

In total, six of the Maroons’ losses to the Violets were by two points or less, including three one-point decisions.

“We have had a number of [UAA Championship] meets where things just broke our way,” head coach Leo Kocher said. “This year, they didn’t.”

As planned, the coaching staff decided to slightly shuffle the lineup against NYU. Though the tactic didn’t work for Kruzel, it did prove to be successful for third-year natural 165-pounder Mike Bishof, who notched a 2–0 decision in overtime against Violets third-year Ryan the 174-pound class.

“If [second-year Brandon] Tillman, Bribriesco, and Spencer would have won, I wouldn’t have juggled the lineup, so who knows what would have happened,” Kocher said.

Heavyweight Tom Nero posted Chicago’s only other win against NYU, defeating second-year James Laymen 6–2.

The Maroons wrestled far more accurately and decisively against the rival Spartans. While they dropped 6 of 10 matches, Chicago’s four!!!!! wins were by huge margins. First-year Ben Hart, who was pinned in just four minutes against NYU’s Joe Ranzenbach, made a pin of his own against Spartans first-year Timothy Sykes. Hart’s six points gave his team an early lead, but six of the next nine Maroons were taken down by decision.

Team stars Bribriesco and Kruzel, both wrestling in their natural weight classes, dominated their opponents. Bribriesco won by major decision (12–4) over second-year Bradley Greenman, while Kruzel beat second-year Nathan Klingensmith 10–4.

First-year 184-pounder Justin Lucas notched the Maroons’ fourth win against Case, defeating first-year Dave Bernholt 7–2.

The squad fell victim to repeated close and unexpected losses in their battle with the Spartans. First-year Jack Toussaint had opponent Jamie Vaughn’s leg up in the air attempting a takedown, but he couldn’t complete the two-point score. Toussaint ended up falling 8–4.

“We wanted to go 5–5 against Case,” Kocher said. “It was doable, and we didn’t get it done. It was one of those days where if it wasn’t for bad luck, we’d have no luck at all.”

The day wasn’t all bad news for the Maroons, however. Kruzel, who went 1–1 on the day, earned a much-deserved selection to the All-UAA team. He was the only Chicago wrestler awarded with this honor.

“Phil has made some great adjustments,” Kocher said. “I’m pleased with how he seems to have it working for him pretty well.”

Kruzel, who turned a season of missed opportunities around mid-December with a win against a Division I Northwestern wrestler, has emerged as the most improved and consistently strong grappler on the year.

“It’s always a privilege to represent the school, especially when you have put yourself in a position to do something special,” said Kruzel of his conference honor. “It’s a little disappointing that we couldn’t capture another UAA title, but it’s hard to be that consistent in an increasingly competitive Division III.”

Although their recent run is over, the Maroons still hold the all-time lead in UAA titles, having won 11 of the 19 championships dating back to the conference’s establishment in 1987.

Saturday’s league championship marked the end of the Maroons’ team efforts. They will now shift their strategy to focus more on developing the potential and increasing the accomplishments of some of their best individual wrestlers, notably Kruzel, Bribriesco, and Marriott.

One of the toughest invites of the season awaits the Maroons at Wheaton on Saturday and Sunday, in which 25 to 30 teams are expected to participate. The following week, Chicago will host the Great Lakes Regionals, where the 10 weight class champions and 11 wild card selections will qualify for the NCAA Championships, to be held in Ewing, New Jersey March 3-4.

“Nationals are a very reachable goal for some of our individuals, and it’s going to be a hard-fought battle with some excellent competition,” Kruzel said.