For Wisconsin wrestler Grant Hoerr, this weekend’s Big Ten championship is a return to familiar territory. The senior is looking to improve upon his third-place finish from a year ago, and he will get a chance to do it in a place he knows well.
The 141-pound Morton, Ill., native won two state titles in high school at the site of this year’s tournament, the University of Illinois’ Assembly Hall.
“Good things have happened in that arena for me,” said Hoerr, who enters the tournament seeded third.
Hoerr and his teammates will try to duplicate some of that success and qualify for the NCAA tournament in two weeks. At the end of the tournament, the top seven wrestlers in each of the 10 weight classes will qualify.
Head coach Barry Davis thinks all nine UW wrestlers have a shot at qualifying. But to do it, they will have to get through the most difficult conference tournament in the country.
“This tournament is as tough as the NCAAs almost,” Davis said. The rankings concur. Eight of the 11 schools in the conference are ranked in the top 25 in the country. And five of those eight are in the top 10, including top-ranked and defending national champion Minnesota.
“At Big Tens, every weight is always up in the air,” junior Kevin Black said.
Last year Black took second in the tournament at 133 pounds. He beat the second and third seeds before losing in the championship match to the top seed.
This year he’ll most likely have to go through Minnesota’s undefeated Ryan Lewis to win. In their lone match of the year, Black was pinned.
“I knew a couple things that he did, and I went out thinking so much, ready to counter that kind of stuff,” Black said. “I really forgot about wrestling.”
Black and Lewis split their two matches a year ago. Four other UW wrestlers are seeded in the tournament. Sophomore Ralph DeNisco and freshman Brady Reinke are each seeded sixth. DeNisco competes in the tough 184-pound class. Seven of the wrestlers in the conference, including DeNisco at No. 15, are ranked in the top 20 in the country.
Sophomore Jareck Horton is seeded seventh at 197 pounds. Junior Justin Staebler is eighth in the heavyweight division.
Wisconsin is looking to improve upon a disappointing 3-5 conference dual-meet record.
The Badgers lost a close match to Ohio State but were handled in their other four losses by the top teams in the conference. All four of those losses came in a tough two-week stretch at the beginning of February.
“We’re a better tournament team than a dual-meet team,” Davis said.
Overall, the Badgers finished the regular season with a lackluster 11-10 record.
“A lot of people who follow Wisconsin wrestling think that we’re not where we need to be because we got beat by some teams at the beginning of the year that aren’t as good as us,” Black said. “This is all that really matters to us.”