DeKALB — Redshirt sophomore Brit Wilson had his ticket punched for Minneapolis, Minnesota and the NCAA Wrestling Championship after winning the Mid-American Conference 184-pound championship March 8 in DeKalb.
Instead of wrestling at U.S. Bank Stadium this past week, Wilson said he went to Colorado to take time off with his season being ended prematurely due to the NCAA canceling all events in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Me and my girlfriend actually went to Colorado and spent some time hiking in the mountains and just relaxing for that weekend. It was really just to take my mind off [the cancelation],” Wilson said.
The NCAA’s decision March 13 to cancel all winter and spring sports championships due to the COVID-19 outbreak came less than a week before its annual three-day national wrestling tournament. It’s the first time the championships were canceled since 1945.
Four NIU wrestlers were set to go to the tournament, including Wilson who would have been competing for his second straight year.
“My first year when I made it, I was excited to be there and happy I made it, but didn’t perform the way I wanted to,” Wilson said. “This year, especially toward the end of the season, I was feeling really good and felt like I was wrestling the best I ever had.
Wilson was the one who broke the news to his fellow MAC Championship finalist, redshirt first-year 165-pounder Izzak Olejnik. Olejnik said he had just finished a workout preparing for the tournament.
“Right after our individual workout got done, [Wilson] came in and he gave us the news,” Olejnik said. “I went to my phone and checked it for myself. It didn’t feel real at first, but then Coach [Ryan] Ludwig brought us in for a meeting.”
Olejnik admitted he’d spent most of the championship weekend reflecting on this past season where he went 19-10 and finished runner-up in his 165-pound weight class. Olejnik said he wasn’t very positive about the cancellation at first.
“[A tournament opportunity] getting taken away from you kind of makes you feel like the season was a waste,” Olejnik said. “But you just have to look back on it and look at all the goods about it, not all the bads.”
Redshirt first-year 197-pounder Gage Braun also made the tournament with a strong showing in the MAC Championships, echoing Olejnik’s sentiment of wanting to keep a good frame of mind about the situation.
“It sucks, and it’s hard on all the guys who made it because they wanted to compete,” Braun said. “You just have to look at the positives of it and just hope everyone stays safe.”
An at-large bid for redshirt junior 285-pounder Max Ihry meant recognition for his rebound from only three wins last season to 16 this season. Ihry said the wait to hear at-large bids was tough.
“It was before a practice when I learned,” Ihry said. “Warm-ups were starting and I kept checking my phone. The coaches told me to put my phone down and start practicing. So I started warming up and what not; then one of my coaches raised his fists in the air, cheering while he was on his phone. That’s when I learned I made it, and it was a cool moment and everyone congratulated me.”
Ihry’s career-best season didn’t see him get his first chance on the mat at the national championships, but he said he understands the importance of the NCAA trying to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
“When they started cancelling other stuff like the NBA season, I figured it was only a matter of time before the NCAA followed suit,” Ihry said. “It was really disappointing, but at the end of the day I understand why they made that decision. This is something going on right now that’s bigger than sports.”
The good news for Ihry, as well as all the others who were named to the NCAA tournament, is that they have a chance next season to make it back again when it’sthey’re held in St. Louis, Missouri in 2021.