Wrestling carries high hopes into new season


Jarrett Huff | Northern Star

Then-redshirt sophomore Brit Wilson being announced the winner March 7 after his 8-5 decision win in the 2020 MAC Championship semifinals at the Convocation Center.

By James Krause

DeKALB — The NIU wrestling team comes into the 2021-22 season with high expectations after sending five wrestlers to the NCAA Championship tournament last season.

The Huskies were ranked third by WrestleStat in their pre-season ranking of the Mid-American Conference, sitting only behind Cleveland State University and Central Michigan University. The ranking comes after placing fourth in the conference championships last season.

At NIU’s Winter Media Day last Thursday, head wrestling coach Ryan Ludwig said his team welcomed the higher expectations.

“It’s about momentum,” Ludwig said. “We want the expectations to be higher. Our expectations aren’t just to win the Mid-American Conference but to compete at a national level. We always talk about that, and having some guys bring home some national accolades really sets the standard of how this gets done.”

Along with high expectations for the team, WrestleStat also ranked six of NIU’s wrestlers as top five in the MAC at their respective conference. Two-time conference champion and redshirt senior Brit Willson was ranked No.1 at 184 pounds. Two-time 165-pound championship finalist and redshirt senior Izzak Olejnix also received top billing at his respective weight class.

Redshirt senior Mason Kauffman was ranked second among 174-pounders after making his way to the NCAA tournament last year, winning the Elite 90 Award for outstanding academics among championship competitors.

Along with five returning national qualifiers, 13 newcomers make up the Huskies roster heading into the season. The variety of experience has upped the competitiveness of the team, resulting in a close finish in the Red/Black Duel last Thursday. The Black squad came from behind to knock off the Red team 17-13 in the exhibition.

“There’s a lot of energy in the room, a lot of new variety in our wrestlers,” Ludwig said. “Everyone’s pushing each other, and our preseason has been going very well.”

Among the newcomers who got a chance to showcase themselves at the Red/Black event were freshman 157-pounder Tulga Zuunbayan and freshman 125-pounder Blake West. 

Zuunbayan, a former NJCAA champion at Harper College, defeated redshirt junior Anthony Gibson by a 10-4 decision. Blake West matched up with redshirt senior Bryce West, no relation, and lost 3-2.

“(Zuunbayan) has impressed us with his work ethic,” Ludwig said. “(Blake West) is a couple time state champ and highly touted recruit out of Minnesota. We’d like to see him take the reins at 125 down the road.”

The Huskies’ regular season will mainly consist of open tournaments throughout the late fall and early winter. NIU will return to the Midlands Championships on Dec. 29-30 at the NOW Arena in Hoffman Estates.

The Huskies home schedule opens with the Huskie Duals on Dec. 17 with matchups against Harper and MAC-rival Kent State University. Beyond hosting three other MAC duals, NIU will host Oklahoma University on Jan. 22 and California Baptist University on Feb. 20.

NIU will try to build momentum for the MAC Championship tournament on March 4 and 5 in Athens, Ohio.

The Huskies season opens Saturday at the Michigan State University Open in East Lansing, Michigan.