Michigan wrestlers of past, present and future visited Cliff Keen Arena on Sunday, before the home opener against Wisconsin. And before squaring off with the Badgers, the eighth-ranked Wolverines hosted a free wrestling clinic.
Olympic hopeful and Michigan alum Josh Churella, along with Illinois’ Jimmy Kennedy, led the clinic. Michigan wrestlers not in the lineup against Wisconsin also participated.
As the clinic concluded, the children flocked to the bleachers to watch the main event. Michigan was expecting an easy win handed to them on a silver platter. But after a few early lower-weight wrestlers struggling to score early on, it was up to the Wolverines’ last four wrestlers to claim the 21-12 win.
Redshirt sophomore Grant Pizzo earned the first points on the board in the 125-pound match with a 9-1 major decision. He stole an early advantage on Wisconsin freshman Austin Hieptas with a takedown, near fall and almost two minutes of riding time in the first period alone.
“Individually, I feel I did really well,” Pizzo said. “I was on my leg attacks and got the major for the team.”
But after Pizzo’s victory, Michigan lost four of the next five matches — matches they should have won.
The lone win came from 141-pound fifth-year senior Kellen Russell.
Russell fell to No. 4 in the nation after his 46-match win streak came to an end last weekend. But his champion nature was not questioned as he attacked Wisconsin redshirt freshman Thomas Glen.
Wisconsin isn’t a ranked team, whereas Michigan was No. 8. So, why were the Wolverines trailing by four points after six matches?
At intermission, Michigan was down 12-8.
“I didn’t think we wrestled very well,” said Michigan assistant coach Donny Pritzlaff. “We should have been 5-0 going into the intermission, but we didn’t wrestle hard enough.”
But when the team emerged from the locker room, after the coaches reassured them that they were capable of more, they wrestled with a different spirit.
Fifth-year senior Justin Zeerip rallied for a 10-2 win in the 174-pound contest against Badger Frank Cousins. He catalyzed the team’s comeback with his final takedown to earn a major decision.
“He’s a fifth-year senior; he should be doing that,” Pritzlaff said.
As a former Wisconsin associate head coach, Pritzlaff had a different perspective than anyone else in the arena. He knew how both teams operated on the mat. Pritzlaff left Wisconsin’s coaching staff to join Michigan this season.
Michigan was in desperate need of a win, which was delivered by redshirt junior Hunter Collins. In the 184-pound bout, Collins found a late takedown after being awarded a technical violation on Wisconsin redshirt freshman Timmy McCall.
“He was very strong physically,” Collins said. “I knew I had to wear him down and eventually through the match that’s what happened.”
Collins pushed Michigan into the lead with his 4-3 finish, but redshirt freshman Max Huntley and redshirt junior Ben Apland secured the victory.
Huntley, at 197 pounds, faced sophomore Badger Jackson Hein. After a scoreless first period, Hein scored an escape in the second and Huntley found a reversal in the third to tie the match 2-2. They went into sudden victory overtime.
His only thought throughout the prolonged match: “Winning.”
It was his first match at the Cliff Keen Arena and the spectators were eager to witness his first home win.
“I could hear, ‘Let’s go Max,’ and I wanted to score,” Huntley said. “I wanted to win for the crowd.”
Following Huntley was heavyweight Ben Apland, who sealed the deal. But it was another comeback story. Tobin stole the lead in the second period, and Apland had to wrestle his way back to an 8-4 win.
The coaches walked into the arena with high expectations but walked out with a bittersweet taste in their mouths. The team won, but it seemed as if it was resting on its laurels.
“I didn’t think we competed as hard as we should have.” Pritzlaff said. “We have a lot of work to do.”