Wrestling: Northwestern goes on longest road trip of season

Rohan Nadkarni

For the first time in Big Ten action this year, No. 18 Northwestern (6-3, 2-3 Big Ten) will wrestle back-to-back duals on the road. After a win against Michigan State last Friday, the Wildcats hit the road to take on No. 8 Illinois (11-2, 3-2) and Purdue (7-8, 2-4) this weekend.

The Fighting Illini are the third top-10 team the Cats will face this season. NU lost its two earlier duals against such competition to No. 2 Penn State and No. 4 Iowa.

“We expect to win every dual,” coach Drew Pariano said. “I know we were on the short end on a couple of them, but that’s not our mindset here at Northwestern. We expect to win.”

Illinois finished sixth at Midlands in December, and Friday’s dual will feature up to four potential rematches. Ninth-ranked Levi Mele (125 pounds) and Jameson Oster (133 pounds) have an opportunity for revenge, while second-ranked Jason Welch (157 pounds) and John Schoen (197 pounds) can build on previous wins. Schoen has beaten his opponent, 16th-ranked Mario Gonzalez, two times in a row.

“It’s really hard to beat guys three times in a row, but John’s the guy that can do it,” Pariano said. “There’s exciting matchups. We’re looking forward to them.”

The Fighting Illini started the season hot, winning their first six duals. Although they have cooled off slightly since the onset of conference play, Illinois is still 5-2 in their last seven duals.

In line with most other Big Ten programs, the Fighting Illini have six wrestlers ranked in the top 20. Two wrestlers are ranked fifth, Jesse Delgado at 125 pounds and B.J. Futrell at 133 pounds. Delgado will wrestle Mele in one of the Midlands rematches.

“I look forward to these conference matches in the Big Ten,” Mele said. “I just have to be as ready as he is. This match is big. I take it personal and I put a chip on my shoulder.”

The dual will be personal for more than just Mele. In addition to the Fighting Illini and the Cats’ natural in-state rivalry, the programs’ competition for recruits adds another layer of intrigue. Pariano said the two coaching staffs are very familiar with one another.

This weekend will start the home stretch for the Cats, who have only three duals left in conference play. How individual wrestlers fare in these next few matches will determine their seeding for the conference tournament in March.

“You have to battle yourself in wrestling,” Pariano said. “If you have any negative thoughts, you need to get those out of your head and just focus on positive ones.”

After the dual in Champaign, Ill. , on Friday, NU will remain on the road to take on Purdue on Sunday.

The Boilermakers are coming off an up-and-down weekend, dismantling Wisconsin 41-3 but losing to Nebraska 9-24 on Sunday. Purdue managed to win three bouts against the Cornhuskers.

Thirteenth-ranked Ivan Lopouchanksi at 149 pounds and 19th-ranked Braden Atwood at 184 pounds are the only ranked Purdue wrestlers. The Cats have struggled mightily at 184 pounds, with Robert Kellogg and Marcus Shrewsbury owning a combined 4-18 record.

“They’re really good at a lot of weights,” Pariano said. “Same idea as Michigan State–we have to be ready for them. If one match goes their way, one swing match, we’re in for one heck of a day.”

After the dual with Purdue, the Cats will wrestle three non-conference opponents before ending Big Ten dual action Feb. 17 against Indiana.

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