Yesterday was a big day for Husker wrestling, as head coach Mark Manning and top-ranked Eric Schultz participated in a virtual press conference ahead of this weekend’s Big Ten Championships. Also, the seeds for the tournament were announced.
The Big Ten tournament will have 14 wrestlers in each weight class, and the Huskers have one No. 1-seed in Schultz, who will earn a bye into the quarterfinal. Also receiving first-round byes are No. 2-seeds Liam Cronin (125 pounds) and Mikey Labriola (174).
Chad Red Jr. will be seeded No. 4 at 141 pounds, while Christian Lance is seeded fifth at heavyweight. Senior Taylor Venz is seeded No. 6 at 184 pounds, while Ridge Lovett (149 pounds) and Peyton Robb (165) are both seeded No. 7. At 157, Caleb Licking is the 10-seed while Tucker Sjomeling is the 11-seed at 133 pounds.
According to Manning, this year’s team has been extremely strong mentally while going through so many unknowns in a shortened season without fans in the seats.
“We knew we were going to be challenged and our guys really just did a great job,” Manning said. “When you travel during the pandemic, it’s a lot different than traveling in past years. I just see the discipline that our team has in getting themselves up for a match when there’s no fans. You have to get yourself into a mental performance shape and get your mind right so your skills can come out and you can be at your best. Our guys did a really good job of that.”
With the Huskers having wrestled their past three duals on the road without fans, Manning thinks that experience will carry over to Big Tens.
“We’ve been on the road a number of times, and I think that with the significance of the tournament our guys are going to be ready to go,” Manning said. “It takes the home crowd out of the equation a little bit and then just really gets down to wrestling.”
As for the Husker lineup, it’s been in flux at times this year but Manning is hopeful they’ve figured out their optimal lineup. There’s been a healthy amount of competition along that way, especially at 133 and 149.
“We’ve had some wrestle-offs and we have some criteria that we go off of, and Tucker (Sjomeling) has earned that (133-pound) spot right now,” Manning said. “We’ve had some competition at 33 and at 49, and it’s really good competition. Really, we’re just trying to evaluate and put the ten best guys on the mat, and this is what we’ve come up with.”
Two guys that moved up in weight from a year ago are sophomores Ridge Lovett (5-0) and Peyton Robb (6-3), and they both earned No. 7-seeds for this weekend. Lovett wrestled last year at 133 pounds and after nipping at Chad Red’s heels at 141 pounds to begin the season has moved up to 149. It may sound like a big jump from 133 to 149, but really it was miraculous Lovett was even able to make 133 last year.
“We don’t even think about (Lovett) being up because he’s a healthy 149-pounder. He’s probably never going to be under that weight ever again,” Manning said. “It’s not like, ‘oh he’s wrestling at 149 and he’s going to be at 141 next year.’ He’s going to be at 149 or higher. Ridge has grown a tremendous amount. He’s filled out. His body has really matured. We kid him a little about having some man muscles now where he had just little baby muscles last year. He’s a big, strong kid so he’s a 149-pounder.”
As for Robb, Manning sees his potential as sky high and decided to put him in a spot where he’ll have the best chance to succeed. Last season as a redshirt freshman, Robb finished third at the Big Ten Championships at 157 pounds but moved up to 165 this year.
“Peyton we had the option of going 157 or 165. And we thought he had a better shot at being a national champ at 65 than 57,” Manning said. “He’s a strong young man and he’s seemed to handle the weight well.”
As for goals this weekend, Manning you can tell is looking forward to putting someone at the top of the podium. Nebraska has not had an individual Big Ten Champion since 2015 when Robert Kokesh won his second straight Big Ten title at 174 pounds. Kokesh is currently an assistant coach for the Huskers. In 2014, Kokesh and James Green won conference crowns as well.
“We need some champions this year. It’s been awhile since Kokesh and James Green, so we need to blow the dust off that stat right there, and I think we have a number of guys that can do it,” Manning said. “It’s going to be tough, but our guys are tough and ready and prepared.”
Nebraska’s most likely candidate to bring home a conference title is top-ranked and top-seeded Schultz, who made it to the Big Ten final a year ago before falling to top-seeded Kollin Moore of Ohio State. Schultz sees that experience as a benefit going into this year’s tournament.
“I just tell myself that I’ve been here before, nothing new,” Schultz said. “It kind of keeps me more relaxed and makes me feel better. I think it helps a lot.”
Schultz, who is 8-0 on the year, took the offseason to get better both mentally and physically.
“I just think I put in more extra workouts on my own and I watched more film trying to be more of a student of the sport,” Schultz said. “Getting more mentally prepared I think helped a lot.”
As for that No. 1-seed, it’s not something Schultz is worried about.
“It doesn’t matter to me. It’s another tournament that I haven’t won, so I don’t think that the seeding really means anything until I actually win the tournament. Then I’ll feel that I’ve earned that No. 1 spot,” he said.
Since Schultz has earned that No. 1 spot in the Big Ten and in the national rankings, you still won’t see his head getting too big. He’s got a pretty big name there in the wrestling room in Jordan Burroughs to help humble him and show him he has much room to improve.
With a shortened season due to covid, Manning knows that every match counts. And some of the top teams in the Big Ten have missed multiple duals due to cancellations, including No. 1 Iowa who hasn’t wrestled since Feb. 7. No. 2 Penn State has had three duals cancelled and No. 4 Michigan missed four straight duals in the middle of the season.
Nebraska, on the other hand, missed only one dual against Rutgers when the Scarlet Knights pulled out.
“When you only have a couple matches, you’re not the same. Our guys, we had eight matches and some guys got extra, so it allows guys just to have a lot more experience. If we use it to our advantage, we can really reap the benefits,” Manning said. “That could factor in where guys are not prepared to wrestle back-to-back matches. Not everyone is going to be a Big Ten champ, so it’s how you do in the wrestle-backs.”
Look out later this week for a more in-depth breakdown of the Huskers’ seeding and possible matchups to watch.