Wrestling: Wildcats’ season closes with 2 runners-up at NCAA Championships

Rohan Nadkarni, Reporter

Northwestern sent two wrestlers to the final round of the NCAA Championships, but both failed to capture a national title Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa.

In the last match of his career, redshirt senior Jason Welch fell to Iowa’s Derek St. John at 157 pounds. Earlier that night, redshirt sophomore Mike McMullan lost to Minnesota’s Tony Nelson in the heavyweight final.

Welch ended his collegiate career with his best finish in the NCAA Championships — but also winless against his Big Ten rival, St. John. Their match picked up intensity in the second period, when St. John rode Welch for the full two minutes. Starting in the down position in the third period, St. John picked up two points on locked hands and an escape, but Welch tied the bout 2-2 on a takedown.

Afterwards, Welch could not hold on to St. John, who picked up the championship-clinching point on an escape with less than a minute to go. Welch’s furious attempts at a takedown were rebuffed as the clock ticked to zero. The Walnut Creek, Calif., native and former No. 1 overall recruit won a Big Ten championship earlier this season and was a three-time All-American in his four seasons at NU.

“I have no regrets,” Welch said. “I wrestled hard, and tried to please the crowd a little. It’s been amazing to develop and grow as a person at Northwestern. Getting to know and go through this with (coach Drew) Pariano … if I had to do this all over again I would choose Northwestern.”

Welch grew especially close with Pariano, who recruited him as a high school senior. After his match, Welch said Pariano made it a point to say “he was proud” of what Welch accomplished.

“It’s a very personal exchange a wrestling coach and their athlete have that maybe other sports don’t have quite the same,” Pariano said. “The amount of hours you spend with that one person is countless. The biggest thing I told (Welch) was ‘you’re one of the most fun athletes there is to coach.’ I just feel bad that I didn’t get (the national championship) for him.”

McMullan fell 6-2 to Nelson in the championship round. The fifth-seeded McMullan held his own in the NCAA tournament, upsetting wrestlers — including a sudden-death win in the semifinals — en route to the heavyweight final. But Nelson proved to be too much for McMullan, defeating him for the second time in a championship match. Nelson also toppled McMullan for the Big Ten heavyweight title earlier in the year.

“I could have wrestled to keep it close, but I really wanted to open up and wrestle my style,” McMullan said. “Sometimes it works for me, sometimes it can work against me. (Nelson) was just able to take advantage a little.”

McMullan improved from his third-place finish at least year’s NCAA Championships, earning his second straight All-American honor. Pariano noted that McMullan’s athleticism was on full display during the tournament, with the redshirt sophomore recovering from an injury that robbed him of most of the regular season and still making it to the finals.

The 2013 tournament was the first time the Cats sent two wrestlers to the finals since 2007. Pariano and NU are still looking for the school’s first national champion since Jake Herbert in 2009.

“We’re always searching for a national title,” Pariano said. “Once those personal goals get met, then the team goals follow. It is a rare feat in wrestling to get two wrestlers to the national finals. That speaks to the kids.”