Wrestling: Northwestern places 9th at NCAA Championships

Rohan Nadkarni

March Madness is over – at least on the mat.

Northwestern’s postseason ended on Sunday with the conclusion of the 2012 NCAA Wrestling Championships, where the Wildcats took ninth place overall. The Cats were powered by the third place finish of redshirt freshman Mike McMullan at heavyweight and the fourth place finish of Jason Welch at 157 pounds.

McMullan, who entered the tournament as the 10th seed in his bracket, made it all the way to the heavyweight quarterfinals before eventually winning the third-place match against Oregon State’s Clayton Jack. McMullan’s finish is the highest for an NU redshirt freshman since Jake Herbert in 2005.

“To place third in the country as a freshman is just outstanding,” coach Drew Pariano said. “The fact that he came back (after losing in the quarterfinals) was just really strong. Everybody knows what he’s capable of.”

Welch, who started the season undefeated until a loss in the Big Ten Tournament final, made it into the 157-pound semifinals against Iowa’s Derek St. John – the same wrestler who defeated him at Big Tens.

Welch, who was the third seed, lost to second seeded St. John in the semifinals, pushing the NU junior into the consolation bracket, where he won the semifinal but lost the third-place match.

Welch and McMullan’s finishes earned them both All-American distinctions heading into next season.

“Obviously it’s an extremely personal sport,” Pariano said. “Some guys feel pretty good right now, some guys fell short of their season goal. At the same time, the team collectively competed very hard.”

The Cats sent four other wrestlers to St. Louis, each of whom recorded at least one win. Sophomore Kaleb Friedley made it into Session III at 149 pounds, where Friedley went 1-1, losing to Oregon State’s Scott Sakaguchi to end his season.

Levi Mele, who led the Cats in wins entering the tournament, was ousted in the second round of wrestlebacks by Oregon State’s Pat Rollins after being knocked out of championship contention by Stanford’s Ryan Mango. Mele finished the season with 31 wins at 125 pounds.

Two other NU wrestlers exited during the second round of wrestlebacks as well – redshirt freshman Lee Munster and Pierce Harger. The eighth-seeded Munster finished his season with a 24-12 record, while Harger ended at 22-14.

Every NU wrestler at the tournament could potentially improve his finish next year, as the Cats sent no seniors to St. Louis.

“They are really motivated,” Pariano said. “The attitude was really good even for the guys who were out of the tournament. There’s a reason we do it all over the next day, we’re looking forward to next season for sure.”

Overall, the young NU squad finished the 2011-2012 season with a top-20 dual team, which bodes well for a successful season next year for which most of the Cats’ top wrestlers will return.

“We were always in the top 20 or in that area throughout the year,” Pariano said. “But I thought we had more potential than that. It really is about the NCAAs. Finishing in the top-10 is good, not great. We want to improve that next year for sure, and I think these guys feel like they can.”

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