MAC wrestling challenges NIU

By Mike Romor

The MAC has always been one of the toughest conferences for college wrestling. This season, it is only getting tougher.

The MAC can now consider itself among the top three conferences in the country, sitting alongside the Big Ten and Big 12. With last season’s affiliate members (No. 10 Missouri, No. 17 Northern Iowa and Old Dominion) set to join the regular season conference schedule, NIU finds itself looking at its toughest MAC season.

Having already battled two ranked programs, NIU still has seven more duals scheduled with teams that are either ranked or have received votes in the latest polls.

“We try to load up on top talent in the county,” said head coach Ryan Ludwig. “We hope that by going up against the top guys, it gives our guys a better chance to succeed in the [MAC] Tournament and get to Nationals.”

NIU opens up this weekend’s duals against Northern Iowa, marking the third time in just five duals NIU will face a ranked opponent. The Huskies will close their weekend with a matchup against the Central Michigan Chippewas, which ranks 25th and went undefeated in the MAC last season, beating NIU 23-12 in the process.

This season, NIU is one of only three MAC schools to not receive any votes in the national polls, along with Buffalo and Eastern Michigan. The Huskies lack of recognition comes from being buried in the MAC rankings over the past couple years.

Despite winning some tough duals and showing plenty of talent throughout its lineup every season, NIU has failed to topple established MAC powerhouses like Central Michigan, Ohio and Kent State, which have hovered at the top of the standings.

With the addition of the new programs, especially Missouri and Northern Iowa, the traditional MAC leaders are going to be pressed, while NIU stands to gain ground in the conference.

The Huskies have been trending upward since Ludwig took over the program two years ago and have a roster with multiple capable wrestlers at every position.

While NIU only boasts one ranked wrestler right now — Andrew Morse at 157 — the team could have a number of top 25 performers by the end of the season. The 157-pound weight class is possibly the deepest class in the MAC.

Nick Smith returned for NIU last weekend, beating a top 20 wrestler at 133. Smith has been one of NIU’s best wrestlers when healthy, and as a senior could break out if he can stay on the mat. If he finishes with a positive MAC record, he will find himself in the top 25.

Redshirt freshman Shawn Scott, 197, is still unproven in the MAC, but his potential could pose a threat in a very solid weight class.

Scott already lost one encounter to Missouri’s J’Den Cox, who is ranked 25th, but he will likely face him again later this season, as well as Eastern Michigan’s Nick Whitenburg and Ohio’s Phil Wellington, who are also nationally ranked.

NIU possesses the deepest roster it has had in a long time, which gives the Huskies a legitimate chance to make a splash in the conference, even if the newly added programs make it tougher than ever to do so.