February 5, 2008

Wrestling ready for conferences after trio’s final polish at Wheaton

With its regular season in the books, wrestling prepares for the closing clashes of the year as powerful opponents rumble on the horizon for the postseason.

Finishing their dual-meet schedule with a record of 5–4, the Maroons only committed three members of their team to the Wheaton Invitational, the final contest of the winter. With injuries and fatigue setting in among team members, the weekend was used as an opportunity for the majority of the squad to rest before the UAA Championships coming up this Saturday in New York.

“We are placing a top priority on getting our best performance in New York,” head coach Leo Kocher said. “I felt we needed people to heal up and recover for the weekend.”

The few who that went to Wheaton were first-year David Kneisel and third-years Spencer Burns and Justin Lucas. Wrestling at 157 pounds, Burns pulled out a 4–1 victory against his first opponent, but his second match against Elmhurst fourth-year Kyle Katz saw Burns go down 6–1 in a close set of rounds. Kneisel and Lucas fared little better at the tournament, both falling to their opponents in the opening bout.

It was a quiet end to a loud season. Unlike tournaments earlier in the season, the Maroons did not set out to take the Invitational, and instead used it as further practice for three of their wrestlers. Absent from the tournament were two of the team powerhouses, second-year Troy Carlson at 165 and third-year Ben Hart at 133. Alongside Lucas, they form the wrestling triumvirate, with three tournament finishes each. Nine of their teammates have also placed in at least one tournament, showing both the depth and talent of the Maroons.

“The goal is always to put the best team out that you can. The team has demonstrated to me that we are just a hair off from the best of the Division III,” Kocher said.

Carlson had an especially strong year, with impressive victories against some of the top competitors in the league. Beating Elmhurst third-year Tony Doan earlier in the season and Oshkosh fourth-year Kevin Luedtke last week reinforces Carlson as a dominant wrestler in his league. His decisive defeat of UW–Stevens third-year Jake Wozniak, third-ranked in the nation, elevates him to a force on even the national level.

While this trio makes up the core of the squad, consistently racking up points for the Maroon, they are joined by fierce wrestlers across the roster. Chicago has been able to pull off many of its wins by drawing from a talented pool of rookies. Kneisel, Matt Hart (141 pounds), and Ryan Hatten (285 pounds) have all proven themselves to be extremely competitive, continually contributing to the team’s victories.

“I am really proud of how our freshmen competed,” Kocher said. “Almost every one of them has been thrown into a tough situation at one point or another this season, and I thought they responded well.”

Individuals, rookies included, have been especially pressured to seize matches, with injuries continuing to threaten the Maroons. An early loss of third-year heavyweight Tom Nero was a hard blow to the team’s lineup. No less damaging was the absence of third-years Zach Matayoshi at the other end of the weight classes, and Lance Contento at 174 pounds. A number of Chicago’s new prospects were also out of the running, with first-years Mason May and Chris Oster only recently recovering from previous injuries.

“Because we count on contributions in practice and competition from every team member, injuries hurt us no matter whom they happen to,” Kocher said.

Once the season kicked off and the injuries set in, the team looked to be in trouble as an early win against Wheaton was deflated by repeated losses and too-close wins to less skilled opponents. Their 12th-place finish in the 13-man Cornell Invite at Iowa was a precarious place to start the year from, and the team still looked in trouble with its 25–13 loss to Elmhurst. With the season imperiled, Chicago was forced to rally and reclaim its momentum.

Overcoming their setbacks, the Maroons stepped it up, with wrestlers filling in shoes across the lineup. By the end of January, the squad had scraped its way back to the top. New talent like Kneisel and Hatten picked up the duties of their injured teammates, while veterans such as Lucas and Hart leapt to higher levels of the sport. Their efforts brought the team back to solid ground.

“Our returners have shown some true leadership,” Kocher said. “By U of C historical standards this year’s schedule was pretty grueling and I have no complaint as to how our wrestlers responded.”

No match better exhibited the spirit of this year than Chicago’s match against Olivet. Spectators at Ratner witnessed rounds dominated by returners like Carlson and Lucas. They saw the powerful debuts of the recovered first-years Oster and Contento. They saw the meet slip away to the point where only a pin would win it. They saw Ryan Hatten deliver that epic pin. It was a bout that showed the spirit of the Maroons this year, and one that will be used as precedent for the upcoming championships.

“The win over Olivet was an intense effort from our guys. I like to think we have learned something and raised our self-expectations,” Kocher said.

New York is Chicago’s next port of call. Claiming UAA championships has been a Maroon tradition, and after a tough season, the team seems poised to snatch some difficult wins from Case Western and 15th-ranked titan NYU. Given its experiences this quarter, wrestling looks ready to seize the gold.

“It will be a battle,” said Kocher. “But our guys know how to battle.”