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Wrestling splits a pair of Big Ten duels

By Liz Nagle, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 8, 2012

Standing defeated, Michigan wrestling coach Joe McFarland looked tired from the emotional rollercoaster he and his team rode this past weekend.

The eighth-ranked Wolverines wrestled first at Northwestern and returned home to defend their mat against No. 7 Illinois. The team chugged up the slope of the coaster and reached the victory peak in Evanston. Inevitably, things went downhill from there, as the Fighting Illini pushed Michigan over the edge.

“At Northwestern, Friday night, we wrestled much more aggressive and we didn’t do that today,” McFarland said. “It’s disappointing. It’s disappointing the way we competed overall.”

But no matter how dissatisfying the results were for the coaches, the wrestlers pulled out some positives in their 28-9 win in Evanston.

In the first half of the lineup, Michigan lost two matches, but went on to win three straight with major decisions. Senior Zac Stevens, fifth-year senior Kellen Russell and redshirt sophomore Eric Grajales each manipulated their opponents with a variety of attacks and multiple takedowns.

Following the intermission, the Wolverines dominated the mat in every weight class from 165 pounds to the heavyweight.

Redshirt freshman Max Huntley claimed his second win over fifth-year senior John Schoen in the 197-pound category. Huntley beat Schoen earlier in the season at the Michigan State Open. Huntley converted on a single leg, escaped twice and accumulated almost two minutes of riding time.

“Once I know I’ve beaten somebody, I know I can beat them again,” Huntley said. “If we’ve wrestled them before, our coaches capitalize on it and tell us what we need to do to keep winning.”

Returning home to Cliff Keen Arena, Michigan was resting on the comfort of confidence. But it wasn’t enough. Huntley described it as a “lackadaisical” effort.

“There are no excuses,” McFarland said. “Bottom line, we got our butts kicked.”

After Illinois put the first points on the board, there wasn't a sign that the Fighting Illini would falter, winning 31-9. In the first three matches, Michigan was left scoreless and mentally bruised with pins on Dave Johnson, who replaced fifth-year senior Justin Zeerip in the 174-pound match, and Hunter Collins.

Zeerip was sidelined with swollen eyes, which he suffered in his match against his Northwestern opponent.

But through all their misfortunes there were glimpses of a vengeful retaliation. The three Wolverines that earned individual wins were Max Huntley, heavyweight redshirt junior Ben Apland and the 141-pound Russell.

Huntley was the first to put Michigan on the board, beating redshirt sophomore Mario Gonzalez. Huntley was called out on a technical violation for locking hands, which gave Gonzalez the first score. But Huntley quickly captured control of the situation with two takedowns and an escape for a 5-4 victory.

Apland followed with a win against redshirt junior Pat Walker. The scoreboard showed a pair of goose eggs in the first period, but Apland found a one-point escape in the second, which was enough to claim the win.

Russell recorded his 18th win of the season with a 6-4 decision over redshirt junior Daryl Thomas. Russell, even in his last Michigan season, focuses on attacking his opponents more and more.

“I’d rather score two takedowns in the first than one,” Russell said. “That kind of just snowballs into scoring more takedowns as the match goes on because the guy is going to get a little more tired, a little more desperate.”

But it was the Wolverines who felt desperate by the end. And though McFarland remains troubled by the team’s lack of consistency, Huntley is optimistic for the remainder of the season.

“We’ll come back against Indiana and kick their butts,” Huntley said. “We’re going to come back with fire.”