March 6, 2007

Kruzel rallies at NCAAs to end career as an All-American

Watching fourth-year Phil Kruzel’s matches this season, dominance was hardly the first word that came to mind. He didn’t have flashy moves like first-year Troy Carlson; he didn’t take control from the top like classmate Mike Bishof; he certainly didn’t appear to overpower opponents like second-year Tom Nero. And yet the results clearly show the 165-pounder was a force to be reckoned with and is one of the most overpowering Chicago wrestlers in years.

In a sport where they’re simply aren’t very many statistics, Kruzel won the team triple crown, leading the Maroons in points scored, takedowns, and wins with a 29–3 mark on the regular season. To close the books on an already standout year, the Elmhurst native earned his first trip to Nationals as a wildcard selection after a third-place finish at regionals February 17. A shot at an All-American certificate hung in the balance as he headed down to Dubuque, and it seemed likely that that it would come down to his ability to place in one of the deepest weight classes.

“The 165-pound bracket proved to be every bit as strong as it looked on paper,” head coach Leo Kocher said. “The champion was the first individual in DIII history to win four NCAA titles, and he could only manage a 3–0 win against the sixth seed.”

Despite his solid record, Kruzel went into the tournament unseeded. He dropped a close 7–3 match to second-seeded UW–LaCrosse third-year Tim Palmer to open the weekend. The loss put him in the difficult position of needing back-to-back wins to return to Hyde Park with All-American attached to his name.

Now in the consolation bracket, his next match against returning qualifier third-year Nate Van Dyke from Luther went down in typical Kruzel fashion: a close score of 6–4, but not a close match. The Elmhurst native controlled the neutral position by scoring all the takedowns.

The win put Kruzel in the All-American round. Standing in his way was York College fourth-year Gerald Bowne. A worthy opponent, Bowne had earned his All-American certificate in 2006 with a fifth-place finish and was just one overtime loss away from reaching the championship bout that winter. Chicago’s coaching staff did its homework, and their scouting reports showed Bowne to be a superior mat wrestler. They made the tactical choice to keep Kruzel on his feet whenever possible.

Playing out an intense and emotionally charged match, Kruzel and Bowne traded takedowns and escapes for seven minutes to push the match into overtime tied at 9–all.  Bowne took the first shot, Kruzel countered, took a shot of his own, and scored to win the 11–9 match and All-American status. Kruzel is the 21st Chicago wrestler to bring that honor home.

After achieving his season goal, Kruzel fell in his next two bouts, bowing down 9–5 to Baldwin-Wallace College third-year Gino Russo and coming up short 9–4 against third-seeded Johnson and Wales University third-year Steve Martell. He finished the year at a staggering 31–6.

Comparing Kruzel to Chicago’s previous All-Americans shows what a unique wrestler he is. Nick Kehagias (A.B. ’04), the program’s last athlete to earn the honor, was almost elegant in his technique to capitalize on startling speed and fluid, constant motion to control matches.

There is nothing elegant about Kruzel’s approach. He seems to grind down his opponents, giving nothing away, and looking for the short snatch or double-leg that always seems to open up for him. His shots rarely amaze spectators, but they almost always end up with the referee awarding him a takedown. Even Kruzel’s stance contrasted sharply with that of Kehagias and most former Maroon wrestlers. He wrestles in a high stance, and while most wrestling coaches would criticize it, Kruzel rarely gave up a takedown.

This season he didn’t seem to have any weaknesses. While his strength was clearly on his feet, he was able to wrestle on the mat when he needed to. He scored a reversal in the win over Bowne and earned a riding time point as well. Much of his success this season is due to his conditioning, which has helped him make the transition from competing at 174 last year.

“In the first and only national tournament of his career, Phil definitely rose to the occasion,” said Kocher after the tournament. “He exceeded a lot of people’s expectations—but not those of his teammates, his coaches, and himself.”