NIU’s wrestling team has found its identity in midst of successful season

Redshirt+first-year+Anthony+Gibson+%28top%29+attempts+to+pin+his+opponent+Jan.+5+during+NIU%27s+19-12+win+over+Central+Michigan+University+at+Victor+E.+Court.

Redshirt first-year Anthony Gibson (top) attempts to pin his opponent Jan. 5 during NIU's 19-12 win over Central Michigan University at Victor E. Court.

James Krause

DeKALB — Head Wrestling Coach Ryan Ludwig said the early part of the 2019-2020 season has been about finding an identity as a team, and now he feels they’ve found one.

In a sport where control is key, Ludwig said the team’s brand of wrestling is all based on what it can control in any situation.

“One of the things we’ve been trying to key on is our identity and who we want to be,” Ludwig said. “Toughness, scrappiness, effort and attitude are all things we can control. Those are the things we like to key in on. We want to be tough and scrappy regardless of the situation.” 

The NIU wrestling team hasn’t just found its identity more than halfway through the season, but has found success in the form of an 8-3 dual record. 

The eight wins match its dual victory total from last season with four straight dual wins. Their most recent victory, coming against the University of Arkansas-Little Rock’s program in their first year of existence, saw five wrestlers give the team bonus points in a 38-4 win.

{{tncms-inline content=”<p>“It’s all about our preparation, our training, dieting, getting our sleep and focusing on our behaviors. It’s onto Missouri, the returning Mid-American Conference champions, and we want to be as prepared as we can be to wrestle as well as we can. It’s more a focus on preparation and if we can focus on that, everything will take care of itself.”</p> <p>— Ryan Ludwig, head coach</p>” id=”f54ab216-5560-4187-a394-46b6ecb5ebe2″ style-type=”quote” title=”Pull quote” type=”relcontent”}}

Ludwig, who has been the Huskies’ head coach since 2011, said what’s separated this year’s group from those in the past is a complete lineup that has bought into the team’s identity of ruthlessness.

“I think the difference is we have 10 guys in the line up that are super tough and aggressive,” Ludwig said. “They want to score us bonus points, and they want to be in that lineup every week. These guys are just hungry to see how they can take this thing.”

Redshirt sophomore 184-pounder Brit Wilson has emerged as the ace of the lineup, entering the week with a 12-2 record and ranked 11th nationally in his weight class by OpenMat. 

Wilson said the team has picked up on coaches’ focus towards aggression, making workouts more intense and competitive.

“In the training room, even though we’re all friends and buddies, you know you have to scrap and we’re opponents in there,” Wilson said. “That’s something we have to turn a corner and know that although they may be my buddy, inside the room I’m trying to beat them down, and it’s going to make us better.”

Momentum is on the side of several other underclassmen who have found themselves being flag bearers for the program early in their careers. 

On top of Wilson’s success, redshirt first-year 165-pounder Izzak Olejinik broke the top 20 in the national FloWrestling poll, currently holding an 11-8 record. 

Redshirt sophomore 125-pounder Bryce West and redshirt first-year 197-pounder Gage Braun both hold 15 wins a piece already this season.

Redshirt first-year 141-pounder Anthony Gibson is currently undefeated in six dual appearances this season, sporting an overall 9-4 record.

Ludwig said part of the success of young wrestlers in his program is thanks to more experienced wrestlers being role models for new athletes.

“I think it’s modeling some of their behaviors on and off the mat,” Ludwig said. “With some of the more successful older guys in the room, we’ve been able to get these guys to the right work ethic. They’re constantly getting better throughout the year and I think that’s what it takes.”  

Wrestlers like redshirt seniors McCoy Kent and Kenny Moore have played their part both in mentoring the younger wrestlers and giving the team value as long-time starters at 149 pounds and 174 pounds respectively. 

Wilson said upperclassmen like Kent and Moore has given the younger guys a better look at what tough competition will look like as they progress in their careers.

“Those upperclassmen have been on the team for a few years now, and they know what it takes,” Wilson said. “It’s great to get a good look from them as to what we’ll get from competition.”

The Huskies now have a four-dual road stretch ahead, starting with maybe their toughest competition Saturday against the nationally ranked University of Missouri Tigers. Coach Ludwig said the focus for NIU in their road stretch is to manage their bodies while also being well prepared.

“It’s all about our preparation, our training, dieting, getting our sleep and focusing on our behaviors,” Ludwig said. “It’s onto Missouri, the returning Mid-American Conference champions, and we want to be as prepared as we can be to wrestle as well as we can. It’s more a focus on preparation and if we can focus on that, everything will take care of itself.”

Olejnik said managing his body is a main focus for the late stretch of the regular season.

“We’re just trying to maintain our strength with weight workouts and always working to get better in the wrestling room,” Olejnik said. “We just have to keep wrestling the way we’re wrestling. We want to put on some shows for our fans, make some statements and have fun doing it.”

The Huskies meet the defending conference champions at 2 p.m. Saturday in Columbia, Missouri. The event will be aired on ESPN3.