2021 NCAA Wrestling Championship preview

Tournament has been ‘a long time coming’

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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 — After several wrestlers were denied their chance to compete at the national championship last year, NIU hopes their five qualifiers this season can find success in St. Louis.

While normally the week spent leading up to the NCAA Wrestling Championship is filled with thoughts of preparation, NIU Head Coach Ryan Ludwig said the championships have made him reflect on the year since the 2020 cancellation.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Ludwig said. “Everyone of the 300 plus qualifiers had to deal with the same thing last year. After reality sets in and you come to grips with it, everyone got back to work and had a positive attitude. It’s the culmination of a year of doing things right, being patient and believing that things are going to work out.”

The team arrived in St. Louis Monday, an earlier than usual arrival due to the need for COVID-19 testing required before competition. Ludwig said the change from previous years is something the team has adjusted to well in order to compete.

“At this point, you roll with the punches and you adapt,” Ludwig said. “Everybody’s going to make those connections, it’s no big deal. They’re all kind of sitting around, waiting for their tests and it’s all a part of hitting the mat on Thursday.”

The longer time spent in St. Louis means the more redshirt junior 184-pounder Brit Wilson and four others will have to manage anxiety and emotions heading into the tournament.

“There’s a lot of excitement,” Wilson said. “Obviously last year is not what you want, but it’s good to be back. We’re getting geared up and ready to go, not getting too fired up yet. We still got a couple of days.”

Wilson won a spot in the national tournament in 2020 with a Mid-American Conference 184-pound championship. After it was cancelled, Wilson went 13-1 and won the conference championship all over again to return to nationals. The now three-time national qualifier said he comes into the tournament stronger than he would have last year thanks to added experience.

“Any experience you can get and the more you can wrestle than the better you’ll perform,” Wilson said. “You learn every match and the more time you get, it definitely makes you better. I feel like me and the guys on the team have used that time well.”

Wilson will be the seventh-seed at 184 pounds, the highest-seeded Huskie in the tournament, and face Cleveland State University first-year DeAndre Nasser in the opening round. The tournament is a homecoming of sorts for Wilson who went to high school two hours west of St. Louis in Mexico, Missouri.

Redshirt sophomore 165-pounder Izzak Olejnik is the other Huskie to re-qualify for the national tournament after being selected last season. Olejnik went 14-2 and was the runner-up at 165 pounds in the MAC. Ludwig said Olejnik’s disappointment of not going to his first national tournament fueled his work that led him back.

“That was devastating for him last year,” Ludwig said. “I’d say in terms of disappointments, he was at the top of the list because he was very much looking forward to that. He’s always been an extremely hard worker and an intense competitor and so that just added fuel to the tank for him with his training.”

Olejnik is the 18th seed at 165 pounds and with an opening match with University of Illinois redshirt sophomore Danny Braunagel set for Thursday.

Redshirt junior 174-pounder Mason Kauffman was given an at-large bid after a stalling call in overtime cost him his third-place match at the MAC Championships. Kauffman will meet Campbell University junior Austin Murphy in the first round. 

Ludwig said Kauffman was relieved to get the invite after a 13-4 season, matching his win-total of the past two seasons despite far fewer matches.

“We all knew that he had deserved that and earned that, but you always have that level of anxiety until you see your name on paper and hear it selected by the committee,” Ludwig said. “His preparation was continuing and his mindset was great. He’s feeling great about being here.”

Redshirt junior Bryce West returns to the national championships for the second time in his collegiate career, this time at his new 133-pound weight class. Ludwig said West enjoys life at 133 pounds and is driven by not qualifying last year.

“He’s a competitor and he expects to be at the national tournament,” Ludwig said. “For him, it wasn’t so much that he’s happy to be here again, it’s a sense of ‘Okay, this is where I should be.’”

West will be matched up with Bloomsburg University redshirt first-year Cole Rhone in the opening round.

Redshirt junior 149-pounder Anthony Cheloni had knee scoping surgery during the season and still turned out the best season of his Huskie career with a 10-3 record. Cheloni’s first-round opponent is Appalachian State University redshirt junior Johnathan Millner.

The tournament begins Thursday at 11 a.m. CST with the opening round. Every match will be carried on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU from Thursday through Saturday.