Sean Su/Daily Senior Staffer
No. 23 Northwestern hopes the cure to its recent losing streak is a home match against conference newcomer Rutgers.
The Wildcats will face the No. 24 Scarlet Knights for the first time as a Big Ten foe on Sunday.
“I was born in New Jersey and I’ve got family in New Jersey,” senior heavyweight Mike McMullan said. “So it’ll be nice to show them what the Midwest is all about.”
Even so, the challenge against Rutgers (11-6, 1-6 Big Ten) won’t be easy. After all, the Cats (9-7, 1-6) have been forfeiting a weight class all season long, entering each dual at a 6-point disadvantage.
NU opened the season with freshman Bryce Brill at 157 pounds and sophomore Ben Sullivan at 174, but when Brill was shut down for medical reasons, that left an open slot in the team’s lineup. Sullivan shifted to 157, and the Cats’ main option at 174, freshman Johnny Sebastian — the No. 1 recruit at his weight class in the country — was already redshirting.
“I’m not going to bring a guy out of redshirt in mid-December,” coach Drew Pariano said. “Dual meet wins are important, don’t get me wrong, but so is the development in the process that is college wrestling. You have to put your ego aside and you have to do what’s best for your wrestlers.”
Pariano said that with the forfeit, his team needs to win six matches and probably needs to get bonus points in at least two or three of them. He said, though, that is attainable when you look at the favorable matchups for NU’s top wrestlers: No. 3 sophomore Jason Tsirtsis at 149 pounds, No. 8 senior Pierce Harger at 165 and No. 4 McMullan at heavyweight.
The match Pariano said he looks forward to most is junior Jameson Oster at 141 vs. No. 9 Anthony Ashnault. Pariano worked with Ashnault when he coached the FILA Cadet Pan American team in 2011, and he said he knows Ashnault’s wrestling style well and is preparing Oster for it.
Oster is one of a number of NU wrestlers who are struggling. No Cats competitor outside of McMullan, Harger, Tsirtsis or No. 16 senior Alex Polizzi has a win in the past three matchups.
“We’re just trying to focus on what each individual guy needs,” McMullan said. “At this point in the season, it’s about feeling good individually and getting yourself ready.”
Pariano agreed that individual wins are crucial this weekend, and he’s looking for progress from “the guys that have been taking their lumps.” But he’s most focused on the process of the season.
“When you’re going in with a forfeit in Big Ten wrestling, it’s demanding of your team,” he said. “We can look at it one of two ways. One, each guy needs to do extra work to pick up that 6-point deficit. Or two, let’s not put so much pressure on ourselves and let’s just go out there and do our job, and the dual meet score will take care of itself.”
And if the Cats are going to turn things around, this is a good weekend to do it. They face the Big Ten’s two new teams, Rutgers and Maryland, the next two weekends and then battle a couple of non-conference challengers the following week. McMullan said it’s a good opportunity to gain some momentum and put together a win streak heading into the postseason.
“There’s no bad team in the Big Ten,” Pariano said, “and Rutgers is obviously in the mix with everyone else. But are they an Iowa or a Minnesota? No, they’re not, so it’s good to see somebody new.”
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