Wrestling: NU preps to take on the best at Big Ten Championships

Rohan Nadkarni

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March Madness begins sooner than you think. Tournament time is already here for No. 18 Northwestern as the Wildcats travel to West Lafayette, Ind., for the 2012 Big Ten Wrestling Championships.

The tournament is a two-day gantlet, as successful wrestlers will face bouts all day Saturday and Sunday. The Cats (11-4, 4-4 Big Ten) just finished their regular season as winners of five consecutive duals, and are now preparing for a different style of action.

“Just trying to get our bodies ready,” coach Drew Pariano said. “The hard work’s been done; now we’ve just got to let it go.”

In part of the team’s preparation for Big Tens, Pariano shortened practice to keep his wrestlers fresh.

As a result of Nebraska’s inclusion in the conference, a record 74 wrestlers from the tournament will qualify for the NCAA Championships.

All year, Pariano has stressed the difficulty of wrestling in the Big Ten due to each school’s strength.

“In some regards this is more intense than the NCAA tournament,” Pariano said, “If you look, 174 (pounds) has two top-ranked guys in the first round. The other conferences that are critical of the Big Ten can take note of that, and there’s no way in heck they would want their guys in that situation.”

The Cats themselves feature many of the top wrestlers in the country. In the latest coaches’ poll, NU has four wrestlers ranked in the nation’s top 20 – juniors Jason Welch and Levi Mele, and redshirt freshmen Lee Munster and Mike McMullan.

Five NU wrestlers were awarded pre-seeds for the tournament. Although these seeds are subject to change when the coaches meet to determine the final seedings on Friday, they are an indicator of what the brackets in each weight class will look like.

The five NU wrestlers receiving pre-seeds are Mele, No. 5 at 125 pounds; Kaleb Friedley, No. 8 at 149 pounds; Welch, No. 1 at 157 pounds; Munster, No. 9 at 174 pounds; and McMullan, No. 5 at heavyweight.

No matter what the final seedings look like, the goal remains the same for the entire team.

“(We want) to qualify as many guys as possible for the NCAAs,” Pariano said. “But on top of that, wrestle above our seeds.”

Despite the importance of the weekend, the team kept things light in practice. Pariano sported facial hair during what he deemed “beard week,” saying it’s necessary to “laugh every once in a while.”

As for the actual tournament, Pariano could simply predict what the outcome will be.

“The guys that are excited do well,” he said. “The guys that are nervous don’t do well.”