Wrestling: Injury-riddled Wildcats reflect on what went wrong before Big Ten championships


Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson

Jason Tsirtsis grapples with his opponent. The junior received the No. 4 seed in his weight class heading into the Big Ten championships.

Dan Waldman, Reporter


When Matt Storniolo took over as interim coach of the Wildcats, he didn’t foresee starting a lineup consisting of two true-freshmen wrestlers and a banged up Jason Tsirtsis.

In late October, Northwestern announced former coach Drew Pariano, who coached the Cats for 10 years, would no longer be heading NU’s wrestling program. The University then promoted Storniolo from assistant coach — a position he’d held for six years prior.

But the series of events that followed his promotion wasn’t like anything he had experienced with the team before.

“It was kind of the perfect storm this year,” Storniolo said. “Along with having the toughest schedule that Northwestern wrestling has ever wrestled, it was a Murphy’s Law year in terms of injuries. Losing (redshirt-freshman) Johnny Sebastian before the season started was not something we planned for. Losing (redshirt-freshman) Bryce (Brill) after a couple of competitions really hurt.”

The team was forced to gear up for one of the hardest schedules in program history without its starting 157-pound and 165-pound wrestlers, who were both set for season-ending surgeries.

But the downward spiral didn’t end there.

On top of the two sidelined starters, junior and 197-pound wrestler Jacob Berkowitz missed the first five dual meets, and Tsirtsis, also a junior, only wrestled in two competitions before competing at the 53rd Ken Kraft Midlands Championships in late December. At the same competition, senior Jameson Oster went down with an injury, resulting in him missing four weeks.

“We are a thin roster to begin the season with, only having 19-20 guys on the team,” Storniolo said. “It put us in a difficult spot this year having those injuries and not having the depth to be able to field a full lineup.”

The Cats (2-13, 0-9 Big Ten) finished with their worst regular season record since the 2001-02 season when the team failed to win a single dual, and ended the year 0-9.

For the seniors, the losing has been a new experience. Prior to this season, the worst season the seniors endured was 2013-14, when the team finished 8-7.

“This team has gone through a lot of injuries,” Oster said. “We obviously had a coaching change, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. We just had some untimely things that happened.”

Oster described the practice room as “definitely having a different feel” under Storniolo than under Pariano. Despite the 2-13 record, he said morale has been a lot higher in the room because the team can relate better to the younger Storniolo.

The 141-pound wrestler isn’t the only senior who has noticed a difference this year.

Dominick Malone, who has had one of his best seasons since joining the program in 2012 and is currently the No. 19 wrestler in his weight class, said the combination of a coaching change, enduring multiple injuries and losing several matches by only a few points all played a part in the team’s disappointing season.

“It’s not necessarily that we are less talented this year,” Malone said. “I think in my four years here we’ve been more together and had the camaraderie. … Everyone has been saying that the loss of Drew has really been the main factor, and I think that is a factor, and I just think that we are really young.”

The struggling Cats begin postseason play this weekend with the Big Ten Championships starting on March 5 and will conclude the year the weekend of March 17 for the NCAA Championships.

NU has four pre-seeded wrestlers for the Big Ten Championships: Malone, Tsirtsis, Oster and sophomore Mitch Sliga. Malone received the No. 9 seed and Sliga collected the No. 10 seed in their respective weight classes, while both Tsirtsis and Oster garnered the No. 4 seeds in their brackets.

But with the team heading into postseason play, the Cats are already setting their sights on the future.

Storniolo said the team will be in significantly better shape come the start of next season, and the 2016 recruiting class features several highly-coveted wrestlers, including Oster’s brother, Shayne Oster.

“You’ve always got to be thinking forward to the next year, even two or three years down the road now with the way recruiting is going,” Storniolo said. “Next year, we still have a couple of holes that we need to fill, but in terms of depth we’ll be in a much better situation. We’re not going to be in a situation where we have almost half of our team being true freshman.”

But NU still has more than two weeks left in the season to focus on scavenging meaningful postseason wins in the upcoming championships.

Although the team went through a nearly three-month winless stretch replete with devastating close losses and didn’t get its second win of the season until the penultimate match against Duke, the Cats are still out to compete for their coach.

Senior Garrison White walked out of Welsh-Ryan Arena for the last time in his NU career on Feb. 19 after the team beat the Blue Devils on Senior Night. But even though the dual put an emphasis on NU’s departing wrestlers, White still dedicated the win to his new coach.

“That win was for Storny,” White said. “That win wasn’t for us.”

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