Upset bid escapes Wildcats (Wrestling)

Wade Askew

Going into Sunday night’s dual meet against No. 1 Iowa, redshirt freshman Keith Sulzer was splitting time at his 141-pound weight class. Afterward, coaches and teammates were talking about a potential All-American year.

The dramatic turnaround came after an emphatic 9-3 decision over Dan LeClere, the prestigious Midlands Championships winner and No. 9 141-pounder in the nation. The win was the highlight of a 22-13 road loss to the Hawkeyes (14-1, 3-0 Big Ten), which dropped No. 10 Northwestern to 5-5 on the year and 0-1 in the conference.

“We expect to beat the No. 1 team in the nation because we expect to be the No. 1 team,” assistant coach Andrew Pariano said.

The Wildcats led for much of the dual, which started when No. 3 197-pounder Mike Tamillow scored a 12-3 major decision over Chad Beatty. No. 1 heavyweight Dustin Fox followed with a 2-1 win of his own over No. 6 Matt Fields.

The rest of the match would be a tug-of-war between the two Big Ten rivals, one a long-standing goliath, the other an upstart with aims to become the next great conference power. NU finished fourth at last year’s NCAA Championships, and many believe Iowa boasts the greatest wrestling tradition in the country.

After a devastating 5-3 loss by No. 5 125-pounder Brandon Precin to No. 3 Charlie Falck, in which Falck scored a takedown with 10 seconds left in the match, 133-pound Eric Metzler fell to No. 4 Joe Slaton to cut NU’s lead to 7-6.

Sulzer’s win extended NU’s lead to 10-6, but a major decision loss by No. 4 149-pound Ryan Lang to No. 1 Brent Metcalf, followed by a loss at 157 pounds, gave Iowa its first lead at 13-10.

The Cats tied the score with a win at 165 pounds by Dominic Marella, who earned a decision over Aaron Janssen. Janssen wrestled in the place of top-ranked Mark Perry, who was out with an injury.

With the score tied at 13, Iowa took the dual’s final two matches. At 174 pounds, No. 15 Nick Hayes lost in a 3-1 decision to No. 2 Jay Borschel. With the dual coming down to the last match, No. 8 Phil Keddy defeated Adil Kolovic, who attempted a throw but instead was pinned.

“We’re a pretty darn competitive team, and we can go against these (powers),” Pariano said. “We’re right there with them.”

Nobody gained more confidence in facing a highly-ranked opponent than Sulzer, a relative unknown coming into the dual.

Sulzer said his chief obstacle this season has been a lack of confidence. Wrestling in front of what Pariano estimated as five to six thousand wrestling fanatics in Iowa City would not appear to be an ideal solution, but Sulzer relished the environment and wrestled the best match of his young career.

“The atmosphere was pretty cool – it’s something that helps me. I like it when other people hate me,” Sulzer said. “Everybody else thought it was considered an upset. I know how good I am, I just hadn’t shown it yet this year.”

Tamillow expects NU to maximize its potential as the Big Ten season continues, producing more performances like Sulzers’. The freshman’s win illustrated Tamillow’s belief that virtually every wrestler in the lineup has the potential to make a serious run in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

And while the Cats did not prove greater than the top team in the nation in January, it is March that matters, and Tamillow has a simple message for Iowa: “We were better.”

Reach Wade Askew at [email protected]