NIU wrestling returns to action Sunday at SIUE

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Jarrett Huff | Huff

Then-redshirt sophomore Brit Wilson grapples with his opponent March 7, 2021 during his Semifinal match at the 2020 MAC Wrestling Championships at the NIU Convocation Center.

James Krause, Senior Reporter

DeKALB — The NIU wrestling team had its brightest moment at the NCAA Tournament wiped out by COVID-19 last season, but now look to 2021 as a chance to continue its success.

Head Coach Ryan Ludwig said not knowing if his Huskies will complete this season makes any competition that much more valuable.

“Honestly, the most difficult thing to navigate was the uncertainty of if there was going to be a season,” Ludwig said. “When you just don’t know, that’s harder than having good news or bad news. We’re feeling really fortunate that we’re in a position to compete.”

The Huskies took home third in the Mid-American Conference Wrestling Championships on March 7 and 8 in DeKalb after a 13-4 record in regular season duals. Redshirt junior Brit Wilson won the MAC 184-pound championship while redshirt sophomore Izzak Olejnik made the championship final at 165 pounds. 

Wilson and Olejnik were both named to compete in the NCAA National Championships along with redshirt sophomore Gage Braun at 197 pounds and redshirt senior Max Ihry at 285 pounds. Before any of them got a chance to compete for a national title, the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the national tournament in March.

It’s not just the disappointment of not seeing his wrestlers compete on a national stage that was difficult for Ludwig, but not getting a normal offseason of training. Ludwig said last season being cut-short is helping to fuel the Huskies this season.

“It was very difficult to be separated from the guys and not have our normal culmination of a national tournament, postseason spring and summer training and getting a late start in fall,” Ludwig said. “I think we’ve had new found energy in the room knowing it’s a privilege to be in there, how fortunate we are to be in there right now and how much we did not enjoy having that taken away.

The NCAA made changes to competition standards in response to COVID-19, including allowing piped-in crowd noise and changing pre-match weigh-in conduct for better social distancing.

Ludwig said precautions are being taken by the team, including masks being worn during practice and regular disinfecting of the team’s practice room located at Huskie Stadium. 

“We wear our masks even when we’re wrestling in the mat room,” Ludwig said. “We’re doing everything we can to follow the protocols. We clean the heck out of that [practice] room a couple times a day and our locker room as well. Our guys are doing all the right things to make sure they keep this opportunity to compete.”

The pandemic has also affected scheduling for the Huskies, creating a daunting timetable of 10 duals in just under six weeks. The schedule includes two double headers on Jan. 10 and 24, a tripleheader on Jan. 30 and only one home meet against the University of Northern Iowa on Feb. 5.

With only a short amount of time and few opportunities for wrestlers to set themselves up for the postseason, Ludwig said he and his team are preaching durability and endurance more than ever.

“We harp on that health issue at all times,” Ludwig said. “We talk about that every season because wrestling is a kind of an endurance battle. With an abbreviated season, there’s really no room for error where you get dinged up and miss a few things.”

Ludwig said there are two notable weight class changes for returning starters. Redshirt sophomore Anthony Gibson, who picked up notable ranked victories while battling injuries last season, will move up two weight classes from 141 pounds to 157 pounds. The previous starter at 157, redshirt junior Mason Kauffman, will also move two classes up to 174 pounds.

With limited contests and the potential for COVID-19 cases within the team to spring up at any time, Ludwig said every wrestler will have a role to play anytime they step on the mat.

“In this situation, our theme is being 32 guys strong,” Ludwig said. “At any time, the next man has to be ready to step in. Not just step in to just be there, but step in and be ready to get your hand raised. It’s an ‘all hands on deck’ situation.”

NIU opens their season with a doubleheader dual at 11 a.m. Sunday in Edwardsville against the Bellarmine University Knights. The Huskies will follow that with their conference opener against the Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville Cougars at 1 p.m. on ESPN+.