Herbert suffers 1st defeat of season in NCAA Finals (Wrestling)

Andrew Simon

Just when it appeared it might never happen, Jake Herbert finally met his match.

The 174-pound sophomore ripped through the first four rounds of the NCAA Championships before his perfect season and 42-match winning streak came to an abrupt end.

In his long-anticipated final round showdown with Missouri sophomore Ben Askren, Herbert dropped a 14-2 major decision.

Herbert was one of three Northwestern wrestlers to earn All-American honors at the event, held March 16-18 in Oklahoma City, Okla. The Wildcats notched 48.5 points, good for a 13th-place tie with Iowa State, well behind Oklahoma State, which won its fifth consecutive title.

“We had three All-Americans, which is a good feat when you’re wrestling the best of the best,” coach Tim Cysewski said. “Of course, I wish everyone had placed or done a little better, but it gives us a lot to look forward to.”

Besides Herbert, the other NU All-Americans were senior John Velez, who finished a career-best seventh at 125 pounds and sophomore Ryan Lang, who claimed fourth place at 141 pounds.

Lang earned a berth in the third-place match by grinding out a tough 3-0 victory against Michigan State junior Andy Simmons. But Lang fell to fourth after losing to Lehigh senior Cory Cooperman for the second time in the competition.

“Ryan wrestled well, but he got beat by an older, more experienced guy,” Cysewski said. “We feel good about his future, and if he keeps getting better and puts the work in, he can win the national title next season.”

Meanwhile, Velez closed out his accomplished NU career by defeating Stanford sophomore Tanner Gardner, 8-5, for his 93rd and final collegiate victory.

“It was a great finish for him,” Cysewski said. “That’s one of the goals you have, to be an All-American. With all of the time and effort John put in over the years, with all the surgeries on his shoulder he’s been through, I’m really happy for him.”

But entering the last round of the championships, the spotlight focused its glare on what promised to be a titanic struggle between Herbert and Askren. Askren had finished second at the 2005 NCAAs; Herbert was third. Askren was ranked first in the nation at 174 pounds; Herbert was second. Askren had the longest active winning streak in the nation; Herbert possessed the second longest.

Herbert attacked Askren right out of the gate, but Askren proved too elusive, avoiding the takedown and scrambling to earn one of his own for a 2-0 lead.

Although he battled hard, Herbert could never get back into the match as Askren recorded two near-falls to close out the first period up 6-0. Only Herbert’s reversal to begin the second tarnished Askren’s exceptional performance, as he staked an irrevocable claim to the title.

“We got into a lot of flurries,” Herbert said. “What he did that was really good was when he got in trouble, he stopped and planted his feet but wouldn’t let me get mine planted. So I had not power and no drive.”

The defeat closed the book on a remarkable season for Herbert. His 36 wins in 2005-06 are the ninth-most by an NU wrestler in a single season. At this point in his career, Herbert holds an overall record of 83-4, his .952 winning percentage currently first on the school’s all-time list.

But right now, Herbert’s focus is on winning a national title.

“This loss is going to drive me,” Herbert said. “This year, the three losses I had the year before drove me to have the kind of season I’ve had. But I had a chance to win the national title and I blew it. So I’ll just have to come back and work even harder.”

Reach Andrew Simon at [email protected]