Wrestling: Northwestern takes break from Big Ten slate to take on Northern Illinois

Rohan Nadkarni

Taking a break from Big Ten gantlet, No. 19 Northwestern (7-4) will still be dealing with a formidable opponent this weekend. The Wildcats take on Northern Illinois (6-7) on Friday, their first nonconference dual since Dec. 16.

The Cats started the season 4-0 in nonconference competition and have since gone 3-4 in the Big Ten. Although at first glance the Huskies may not appear to be Big Ten caliber, NU coach Drew Pariano cautioned the Cats against taking their “in-state rival” lightly.

“I don’t know if it’s a break,” Pariano said. “The preparation is the same. We’re going to gear up for it and we’re going to practice hard.”

Northern Illinois is 6-3 in nonconference play, with its other four losses coming in the MAC. The Huskies defeated opponents such as Lock Haven and Cleveland State and were competitive in duals against Stanford and Purdue.

“Any program in the state of Illinois is going to be good,” Pariano said.

Northern Illinois already made a trip to Evanston earlier in the year when it competed in the Midlands Championships. The team finished 26th in the tournament of 43 teams.

The Huskies are led by 20th-ranked Nick Smith and 18th-ranked Brad Dieckhaus. Dieckhaus, undefeated at 7-0, will wrestle either Robert Kellogg or Marcus Shrewsbury at 184 pounds, the weight class that has proven to the Cats’ weakest this year.

Last weekend, the Cats split their duals against No. 8 Illinois and Purdue. Levi Mele picked up his 21st and 22nd wins, including a defeat over fifth-ranked Jesse Delgado.

The 10th-ranked Mele will face Smith at 125 pounds. Smith sports an 11-3 record, and the 125-pound bout should be the marquee matchup of the day.

The star of the Cats’ season so far has been second-ranked Jason Welch, who boasts a spotless 17-0 record.

Welch, an All-American and co-captain, has maintained his success despite the pressure of keeping his record perfect.

“I don’t think about (being undefeated) that much actually,” Welch said. “I don’t know what my record is; I just show up and wrestle.”

However, watching the team struggle against elite opponents while he remains undefeated hasn’t been easy for Welch.

“It’s tough, especially being a captain this year,” Welch said. “Growing up I was never on the best team. But now that I’m really invested, it’s hard to watch some guys struggle. But I know they’ll come through at the end of the year.”

Another potential star was born for the Cats last week, when redshirt freshman Pat Greco recorded his first Big Ten win. However, Greco is not guaranteed to start on Friday in the 141-pound weight class he shares with Colin Shober.

“They’re pretty even, they’re both working pretty hard,” Pariano said of Greco and Shober. “I want them both to know that they’re the guy going out there. They’ll compete until the bitter end, and then we’ll make a decision on Friday.”

With only four duals left in the season, the Cats are positioning themselves for the Big Ten and NCAA championships. Fortunately for NU, three of its last four duals will be nonconference battles, in which the Cats have had more success.

More wins for Mele, Welch and the team’s other wrestlers can pay dividends in the seeding for the year’s final tournaments.

“It doesn’t mean much to me,” Pariano said. “But it means much to the people doing the rankings. To me, I don’t care if you’re 12-12. If you’re the guy getting it done at the end of the year, then that’s what’s important.”

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