Winning when it mattered most proved itself a successful game plan as the Badgers took on the rest of their conference foes at the Big Ten Championships, held at the Field House last weekend. Seven out of the ten UW wrestlers earned an automatic bid to the upcoming NCAA championships by placing at least sixth in their respective weight class. Tack on wild card qualifier Ed Gutnik who finished eighth in the conference, and UW will be sending an “elite eight” to Kansas City, Mo. The number of UW wrestlers advancing pleased head coach Barry Davis.
“Taking eight guys is incredible,” said Davis. “We were picked to take three guys, and we took eight.”
Top place winners for Wisconsin came by means of senior Tony Black at 125 pounds and junior Tyler Loudon, at 141 pounds, taking fourth in conference. Heavyweight Justin Staebler finished the tournament in fifth place alongside freshman Tom Clum in the 133-pound weight class. Junior Brady Reinke, senior Ralph DeNisco and redshirt freshman Lee Kramer all took sixth place for the Badgers in their respective weight classes.
Sunday’s results came as quite a relief to Tony Black, as his clinching of at least a sixth place finish ensured his first ever trip to the NCAA Championships after years of frustration in the Big Tens.
“Finally,” said a satisfied Black when asked about his reaction to the NCAA bid. “This is the most important tournament of the year. If you don’t wrestle well here, it’s the end of the year.”
Possibly the most exciting matches of the tournament were wrestled by Justin Staebler. The senior clinched his second NCAA bid by taking down a Purdue heavyweight with just seconds remaining in the third period to score a 4-3 victory. In his fifth place match, he wrestled into two overtimes before prevailing with a 5-4 win.
“There can be no time left on the clock and if the ref goes ‘two points’ then it’s still two points,” Staebler said of his last second win. “Just keep going at him. If you let everything hang out on the match, good things will come.”
Both Black and Staebler thought the weekend’s results showed the rest of the conference what kind of team the Badgers have.
“We have a young team, and everybody was counting us out, and we go ahead and get eight guys into the national championships,” stated Staebler. “It’s nice to see the guys perform well [at the Field House].”
“I think it was a pretty good showing of what this team is capable of,” replied Tony Black. “And what they’ll do in Kansas City (at nationals) and in the future as well.”
Minnesota claimed the overall Big Ten title with 126.5 points, followed closely by Iowa at 121 points. Wisconsin scored 71.5 points to place ninth, easily distancing themselves from Indiana and Northwestern. The ninth place finish was one better than the regular season final standings which had the Badgers behind Indiana.
Sunday’s championship matches didn’t see any UW wrestlers, but Barry Davis still had plenty to be happy about.
“[The wrestlers] did a great job this weekend,” said a high-spirited Davis after learning of Gutnik’s wild card berth. “It’s a long Big Ten season, you try to keep everybody focused. This was our last home meet, and we were able to put it all together. I credit my staff a lot.”
With the season still very much alive for the majority of the UW squad, the Badgers will now set their sights on the March 22-23 NCAA Championships at Kemper Arena in Kansas City. Davis liked what he saw this weekend and hopes that it will carry over to the end of the month.
“The way they came through here, they keep that attitude, and they’ll do well at the NCAA Championships,” said Davis.