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Wrestling: Conan Jennings completes comeback as Wildcats snap drought

%28Daily+file+photo+by+Leeks+Lim%29+Conan+Jennings+wrestles+an+opponent.+The+sophomore+heavyweight+secured+Northwestern%E2%80%99s+comeback+against+Michigan+State+on+Friday.
(Daily file photo by Leeks Lim) Conan Jennings wrestles an opponent. The sophomore heavyweight secured Northwestern’s comeback against Michigan State on Friday.

(Daily file photo by Leeks Lim) Conan Jennings wrestles an opponent. The sophomore heavyweight secured Northwestern’s comeback against Michigan State on Friday.

(Daily file photo by Leeks Lim) Conan Jennings wrestles an opponent. The sophomore heavyweight secured Northwestern’s comeback against Michigan State on Friday.

Dan Waldman, Assistant Sports Editor

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Entering Friday’s match against Michigan State, Northwestern hadn’t won a Big Ten dual in nearly two years and coach Matt Storniolo was winless in conference play. But sophomore heavyweight Conan Jennings anchored an impressive comeback and gave the team just enough points to snap its losing spell.

Jennings, who is the Wildcats’ only undefeated wrestler in conference play this season, stepped up to the mat with a chance to secure the team’s first Big Ten win since Feb. 23, 2015. NU (6-3, 1-2 Big Ten) trailed the Spartans (2-6, 1-4 Big Ten) 21-18 with only Jennings’ bout remaining — a bout he would have to win by at least 8 points to give the team its long-awaited Big Ten victory.

After mixed results in deciding moments last season, Jennings pulled through under pressure Friday night.

“Conan just keeps surprising people week after week,” Storniolo said. “I don’t think too many people outside of our family thought Conan had any chance at placing at (the Midlands). … There weren’t too many people who even thought he’d be the starter this year. It’s not a surprise to me that Conan was able to go out there and do what he wanted to that kid.”

Last year, NU trailed then-winless Michigan State 16-15 going into the heavyweight match. Jennings needed at least a win by decision to lift the Cats on top, but the then-freshman fell behind early, eventually conceding the dual to the last-place Spartans.

But Jennings took control of the bout this time, securing an early 10-0 lead. He went on to win the match by a technical fall — winning by 15 points — earning 5 points for NU and giving the team a 23-21 victory.

“To anyone that was watching the match, it was a little obvious I was bigger than the kid — I had 60 pounds on him from the weigh-ins — so we got there and I tie up and the kid is just scared,” Jennings said. “So I start pounding from my underhooks and he’s just running away. At one point he had his back to me just running across the mat.”

Although Jennings earned the deciding point, 184-pound junior Mitch Sliga and 197-pound senior Jacob Berkowitz set the stage for the victory.

Trailing 21-10 with three matches remaining, the Cats needed Sliga and Berkowitz to win enough points to give Jennings a fighting chance at finishing the comeback.

Sliga won with ease, recording an 11-2 major decision and cutting the Spartans’ lead to 21-14. Berkowitz needed at least a win by decision to give Jennings a chance, but the senior did one better, beating his opponent by the same margin as Sliga in his team-leading 18th win.

“Going into halftime here, I knew we would need a really big push from the back half of the guys,” Berkowitz said. “I watched Mitch go out there, put everything on the line and really push through. … I just thought it’s not fair for me to out there and just skate through. I have to push as hard as the rest of these guys.”

Storniolo said it was nice to get his first win as a Big Ten coach out of the way, but it wasn’t as clean as he would have liked.

Prior to Friday’s match, Storniolo told the team he was tired of competing in close matches, but either way he’ll take the win.

“Let’s win, we’re tired of being close,” Storniolo said. “We’ve been close before. We don’t want to be close anymore. Either we do it or we don’t. We needed this as a program, we needed this as a team.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @dan_waldman

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