It’s been a long and monotonous two-and-a-half weeks since the University of Wisconsin wrestling team has felt the pressure of facing an opponent outside of fellow teammates within the confines of the team practice facility.
That makes this team (7-8, 4-4 Big Ten) even more ravenous for a chance to challenge the country’s most elite wrestling conference in the 2013 Big Ten Tournament on the campus of the University of Illinois this weekend.
“It’s exciting, for sure,” redshirt freshman Connor Medbery said. “You want to compete with the best; it’s an exciting time. It’s going to be a grind though. “
Wisconsin will send nine wrestlers to battle in the nation’s toughest conference tournament, with redshirts junior Tyler Graff, sophomore Frank Cousins, junior Scott Liegel, junior Jackson Hein and Medbery receiving pre-seeds for the tournament. Both Graff and Medbery earned team-high 3-seeds in the tournament, finishing the regular season each ranked in the top 10.
The Badgers have proven this season they deserve the recognition as a legitimate force in the Big Ten after improving from a winless league season a year ago to a respectable 4-4 conference record.
However, Wisconsin is up against the nation’s most challenging competition, including five of the top 10 teams, packed into the Big Ten’s most cutthroat weekend of the year.
“The conference of the Big Ten and how tough it is,” head coach Barry Davis said. “It’s just that at the Big Ten tournament, you have three brutal matches in a row … For some of those weight classes you have the top eight guys or top 12 in the country.”
In the heavyweight class, Medbery is one of eight Big Ten wrestlers ranked in the top 20 in the country. He said though that the Big Ten tournament is a great opportunity to represent your school and your conference.
Medbery said Davis told the team they need to wrestle like they have nothing to lose.
“[He said] to just not fear losing,” Medbery said. “Go out there with an attitude believing you can win … just go out there and cut loose. You have nothing to protect.”
Davis said another piece of advice he had for his team was to not take anything for granted against the country’s top competition.
“Go until you hear the whistle,” Davis said. “A lot of guys want to relax a little, but you can’t. Don’t anticipate a takedown — make sure you put the guy down … you have to make it happen.”
The Badgers not only have to validate the team’s worth in the Big Ten after collapsing last season but also the value of the program. Wisconsin has 68 Big Ten champions in program history, most recently with Andrew Howe and current Badger assistant coach Trevor Brandvold earning first place titles in 2011.
Wisconsin has finished as high as second place in the tournament, which has occurred 10 times in team history and most recently in 2007.
With the team sitting dormant for three weeks before the tournament’s start on Saturday, Davis said the team is working on in-match situations and positions that will most likely surface during the tournament.
Graff said he’s been working consistently on his conditioning, diet and technique throughout the whole season, and is going to trust his hard work and proven skills this weekend.
“Just remember to let my training take over,” Graff said. “Be my best, let my training take over, wrestle, and everything else will fall into place the way it’s supposed to.”
Graff is a two-time All-American but has yet to take home a Big Ten title. As a sophomore, he was the runner-up in the tournament and finished in fourth place as a freshman.
Even as an freshman lacking any experience in the Big Ten tournament, Medbery expects nothing short of a conference title crown in his first year. He said he has been trying to improve his ability to take down his opponents more efficiently in the past couple of weeks.
“A lot of it has been finishing off my shots,” Medbery said. “I’ve gotten the guys legs a lot but haven’t been able to necessarily finish every shot.”
Even with the Big Ten tournament looming, the Badgers have not forgotten about their ultimate goal in the NCAA tournament. The Big Ten tournament is an opportunity for wrestlers who finish in the top three to earn an automatic bid in the NCAAs. It is also the last chance of the season for wrestlers to gain experience competing against the nation’s top wrestlers before NCAAs.
Davis said it is a competitive advantage for his team having the experience of having one of the toughest schedules in the country.
“You’ve been in tough matches, you’ve been in tight matches, a lot of pressure situations, where sometimes they’re not used to that,” Davis said. “They tend to flinch; they tend to panic a little bit, but our guys say, ‘well, it’s another match, I’ve been here before, let’s just score, ride, get a takedown, get a way to win.’”