Cats Place Two In Finals, Finish 4th (Wrestling)

Wade Askew

By Wade AskewThe Daily Northwestern

If you talked to one of Northwestern’s wrestlers at some point during this season, nothing that happened at the NCAA championships March 15-17 was surprising.

Not the fourth-place team finish, the best in NU history, matched only by teams in 1932 and 1990. Not the four All-Americans, most since the 1990 season. And certainly not junior Jake Herbert’s 184-pound national title.

Before the season began, Herbert stated his goals plainly: “I want to beat the heck out of everyone.”

He was coming off a second-place finish in last year’s 174-pound championship and had been the favorite at 184 pounds ever since he changed weight class in the offseason.

Just over four months after his proclamation, Herbert is an undefeated national champion, a three-time All-American and wrestler of the year, sharing the honor with Minnesota heavyweight Cole Konrad.

Herbert also became NU’s first individual national champion since Jack Griffin won at 118 pounds in 1990.

The reason for his success? “I’m better at wrestling than (my opponents),” Herbert said.

Herbert beat Iowa State’s Jake Varner, 6-1, to claim the 184-pound championship on March 17.

Coach Tim Cysewski had a more specific explanation for his junior’s excellence, saying Herbert is “in the top handful” of wrestlers he has worked with in his long career wrestling at Iowa and coaching at NU.

“Jake shows a lot of athletic ability, a lot of drive, a lot of focus,” Cysewski said. “When he says he’s going to do something, he does it. I think the successful wrestlers in history, from (Olympic gold medalist) Dan Gable to everybody else, they have that drive, that focus. When they say they’re going to do something, you can pretty much expect they’re going to do it.”

Last year’s defeat in the finals to this year’s 174-pound champion, Missouri’s Ben Askren, served as motivation all year for Herbert.

The second-place finish mirrored that of 141-pound teammate Ryan Lang, who finished the regular season undefeated but fell to University of California-Davis’ Derek Moore in this year’s finals, 17-2.

“To be so close there and to fail is one of the worst feelings in the entire world,” Herbert said. “I saw it happening to Lang and I said, ‘No, that’s not happening to me again this year.'”

In addition to Lang’s second-place finish, heavyweight Dustin Fox finished third and 197-pound Mike Tamillow finished seventh, earning all three All-American status.

While each wrestler had legitimate national title aspirations, the record team finish not only eased the individual disappointments, but created its own sense of joy.

“Taking fourth made up for anything – I wouldn’t trade our fourth place for a personal national championship,” Tamillow said. “I think to do it as a team is really so much better.

“Any type of disappointment I had was just erased by the fact I’m just so happy for everyone else on my team and our team as a whole,” he said.

This year’s accomplished junior class, made up of both redshirt and true juniors, did not come to NU during a time of athletic prosperity; in 2004, the Wildcats finished last in the Big Ten tournament.

But after a 14th-place finish nationally in 2005 and 13th in 2006, the stage was set for a big 2007 season behind NU’s quartet of All-American juniors, not to mention junior Nick Hayes, who fell in the round of 16.

The fact that all of those juniors – plus true freshman Brandon Precin, who also advanced to the round of 16 – return next year already has the Cats thinking bigger than fourth place.

Even after the record finish, Fox looked forward to 2008 when asked what it felt like to be a part of perhaps the best team in NU history.

“It feels like nobody’s graduating, and that we should win a national championship,” he said.

Reach Wade Askew at [email protected]