February 20, 2007

Kruzel plays wild card to get NCAA bid

In its final meet of the season, wrestling sent its fourth-years out with a bang. Against the best of the best in the Midwest region, the Maroons put forth one of their strongest showings of the year and gave their star a final shot at All-American honors.

Competing at the NCAA regionals at Elmhurst, Chicago placed seven wrestlers in the top six, including four seniors. Finishing behind 24th-ranked North Central, who they beat in a dual meet earlier in the season, Chicago edged out seventh-ranked Elmhurst, by a single point for third place. Second-ranked Augsburg once again dominated the tournament, with nine of their ten wrestlers placing first and all ten earning trips to the NCAAs. The highlight of the day was the performances of Chicago’s two captains. Fourth-year Phil Kruzel earned a wild card bid to Nationals with a strong third-place showing at 165.

Providing the squad’s strongest finish of the day, fourth-year Mike Bishof made a strong run to the title round at 174. The co-captain won his first two matches 15–2 and 5–1, then won a close bout over St. John’s second-year Grant Eustice in the semis by a score of 2–1. Like almost every other finalist, he lost his championship match at the hands of an opponent from Augsburg. Robert Gotreau took Bishof down convincingly 14–2.

Although 20 wrestlers from the Great Lakes region receive bids to Nationals, taking place in two weeks, not all second-place winners will make it. At the coaches’ meeting after the tournament, the coaches voted to accept other wrestlers as wild card placers, leaving Bishof out.

“I’m disappointed. I would have liked to keep the season going and see how far I could get,” Bishof said. “I wrestled as well as I could and sometimes it’s not in your control.”

Managing to come into the tournament with the second seed and a lofty fifth national ranking, fourth-year Phil Kruzel saw his weekend derailed earlier than expected. In a loaded weight class which included Augsburg fourth-year Marcus Levasseur, a three-time national champion undefeated on the season, Kruzel was upset in the semifinals by North Central second-year Gabe Youel in overtime.

The loss didn’t take Kruzel out of the running, though. By winning his next two matches, Kruzel took third place in the event—no small consolation in a crowded field.

At the coaches’ meeting after the tournament, Maroons’ head coach Leo Kocher pointed out that Kruzel was nationally ranked, had placed at regionals in the past, and only had three losses on the season. It was enough to earn Kruzel the wild card, and he will compete at nationals in two weeks.

“It’s very nice to have my hard work of this season pay off,” Kruzel said. “It was also great to see the team take third. It was really good to see, and now I’m looking forward to Nationals. I have a lot of work ahead of me the next few weeks.”

Kruzel wasn’t the only Maroon to take third. After losing his first match, fourth-year Ben Barnes went on the war path at 184, winning his next five matches to take third place.

“It’s about the hardest thing in wrestling to do,” said his brother and assistant coach, Sean Barnes. After losing his first match 3–0, the unseeded fourth-year won his matches by wide margins, including two pins.

Also placing a strong third, 197-pounder fourth-year Drew Marriott tossed aside his low seed with a quarterfinal upset over third-seeded third-year Jason Finley from St. John’s. He continued his recent win streak relying on two moves, the fireman’s carry from neutral and a sit-out move from bottom, which helped him get a last-second reversal for the win in his final match.

The Maroons’ only first-year, Troy Carlson, put in the type of solid performance that

the coaching staff is getting used to from him. After earning UAA Rookie of the Year honors two weeks ago, he placed fifth in a weight class so deep that the fourth-place finisher earned a wild card spot.

Second-years Ben Hart and Tom Nero also placed, earning sixth-place finishes at 133 and heavyweight. With Chicago graduating five strong seniors, the Maroons will depend on younger wrestlers like Hart and Nero in the future.

A third-place finish at regionals and a UAA championship is more than anyone might have hoped for two months ago. With contributions coming from every corner, it is hard to assign credit to one athlete on the squad. A multitude of wrestlers stepped up at various points. The injury bug hit the Maroons hard, and some wrestlers, like second-years Spencer Burns and Jeff Harmen, missed the entire season with different ailments. But after taking their knocks in the early-season dual meets, the Maroons peaked at the right time to put the program solidly in the right direction.