NIU wrestlers look to fight way back to nationals in MAC tournament

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Jarrett Huff

Then-redshirt sophomore Brit Wilson smiling as he holds redshirt senior Dylan Wisman to the mat March 8, 2020 upon realization that he would be crowned Mid-American Conference Champion at the Convocation Center. The 2020 NCAA Wrestling Championships was ultimately canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

James Krause, Sports Editor

DeKALB — The Mid-American Conference Wrestling Championships will give four NIU wrestlers a chance to earn their way back into the NCAA tournament they never got to partake in.

Redshirt junior Brit Wilson, redshirt sophomores Izzak Olejnik and Gage Braun and redshirt senior Max Ihry all qualified last year for the National tournament through their performances at the MAC tournament before COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the event. 

All four will have to re-earn their right to enter the NCAA tournament with good showings at the MAC Tournament on Feb. 26 and 27 in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.

The focus for Olekjnik starts on the MAC tournament, where he came up short in the 165-pound finals to take home silver. Olejnik was disappointed by the result at the time, but now says he sees the positives of the experience heading into another tournament

“It gave me some good experience,” Olejnik said. “I got to wrestle some guys that maybe I didn’t get to face during the season. Making it to the finals, wrestling all those matches simulates what I plan to do last year, hopefully with better results.”

Olejnik finished the regular season at 10-1, with the Huskies overall record standing at 6-3. The biggest improvement Olejnik has seen in himself from last year is something he actually credits to COVID-19 related changes the team had to make.

“Last year, I think I wasn’t really paying attention to too much detail,” Olejnik said. “I just went out and wrestled, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This year, I’ve been paying more attention to detail and positions…We started the year without being able to have contact with partners, but it was kind of a blessing in disguise that got us better at, like I said, the little things that may have been overlooked in a normal season.”

Olejnik was ranked second at 165 pounds after the MAC revealed their pre-seeds on Tuesday. Only Missouri first-year Keegan O’Toole, who handed Olejnik his only loss of the year, is ranked ahead of him.

Redshirt junior Brit Wilson will look to repeat as conference champion at 184 pounds as the number one seed in the weight class. Wilson, like Olejnik, carries a 10-1 record into the tournament.

The two other returning NCAA qualifiers will face uphill battles in the MAC tournament, with Braun being ranked eight at 197 pounds, and Ihry being ranked seventh at heavyweight.

Several other wrestlers are coming off great seasons with hopes of adding MAC Champion to their resume. Redshirt junior 174-pounder Mason Kauffman enters the tournament as a three-seed in his weight class after a 9-2 season.

Olejnik said Kauffman’s defensive style of wrestling is one the team enjoys seeing, both in practice and in execution. 

“[Kauffman’s] been a spark for the team,” Olejnik said. “It’s always fun watching him wrestle because he’s so hard to score on. He always stays in great shape; he’s someone who’s stepped up this year.”

Redshirt junior Anthony Cheloni will be the second-seed at 149 pounds, sporting a 6-2 record after becoming a starter midway through the season. Redshirt sophomore 141-pounder Caleb Brooks has rebounded from a slow start to earn bonus point wins in three of his last four matches.

Redshirt junior Bryce West qualified for the 2019 national tournament at 125 pounds. In his first season at 133 pounds, West will enter the MAC tournament as a sixth-seed.

“There’s tons of guys who are peaking at the right time and it’ll be a really good indication on where they stand,” Olejnik said. “Hopefully we can qualify all nine.”

The tournament’s opening round will begin at 10 a.m. CST Friday in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. The MAC will carry live streams of all four mats throughout the day with ESPN+ carrying the semifinals starting at 3:30 p.m. CST. Full brackets will be made available closer to the tournament’s start.