WEST LAFAYETTE — “Two.”
The sound of a takedown and the referee’s ensuing call for points rumbled through Mackey Arena this weekend. The bleachers weren’t filled with their usual Boilermakers’ basketball fan base, instead, they were segregated into 12 rival sections, each representing a school in the conference.
After a long season of dual meets, the Michigan wrestling team came to Purdue to repeat its victories and avenge its losses.
Every match mattered in the Big Ten Tournament, with teams vying to earn a spot in the upcoming NCAA Championships. And again, fifth-year senior Kellen Russell climbed to the top to claim his fourth conference title in as many years (2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012). In doing so, he became the first Wolverine to accomplish the feat and just the 11th wrestler in Big Ten history.
But on Saturday, Michigan did not get off to a great start. By the end of the first day, four Wolverines had already been eliminated, and the team accumulated just 50 points for an eighth-place start.
“Guys just didn’t wrestle up to their potential,” Russell said. “It wasn’t a lack of trying. … They weren’t wrestling a full seven minutes.”
Fifth-year senior Justin Zeerip and redshirt freshman Max Huntley were No. 4 seeds entering the tournament, but both fell in minor quarterfinal upsets to fifth seeds after first-round byes.
Zeerip’s foe was a familiar one: Ohio State’s Nick Heflin. Zeerip, ranked eighth, squared off against the No. 10 Buckeye in the 174-pound contest exactly one month ago. In February, he fell in the second tiebreaker as a result of the referee’s waiver on the original reversal call.
Mackey Arena played host to yet another close match between the border-state rivals. Heflin stole another win, leaving Zeerip to wrestle in the consolation bracket, where he placed seventh.
Redshirt sophomore Eric Grajales, too, came to prove he rightfully deserved his previous wins and to take revenge on his former losses in the 149-pound category. And his “FIGHT LIKE HELL” T-shirt said it all. But in the semifinals, Grajales fell to Minnesota’s Dylan Ness, an opponent he defeated in a 5-3 decision earlier this season.
“I’m not happy about it, obviously,” Grajales said. “But it happens, and it’s just one little mistake that I can’t worry about now.”
Then on Sunday, in his first consolation match, Grajales faced Ohio State’s Cam Tessari en route to his third-place finish. Though Grajales shut out the Buckeye in last month’s duel, it was not as easy this time around. At the end of the third period, the score was tied 2-2 and went into sudden victory.
Finally, in the fourth round of tiebreakers, Michigan coach Joe McFarland and assistant coach Sean Bormet anxiously rose from their chairs while Grajales made a one-point escape for the win. His 15-minute marathon was the longest tussle in Michigan history since the most recent overtime system was implemented.
When the referee raised Grajales’ arm to signify his victory, he flexed in front of a rowdy Buckeye crowd before running up the Michigan section’s staircase.
A wrestler of similar strength but mellower spirits followed. Russell calmly paced back and forth before his championship match began. But he always remains composed, almost stoic.
Then, Russell took the mat and let out his aggression. Iowa’s Montell Marion was the unlucky candidate and stepping-stone to Russell inking his name in the history books. The senior immediately took hold of Marion’s leg and tried to keep him in bounds, pulling him toward the center. He went for a takedown, scoring in the first 30 seconds of action.
In the 195th bout of the weekend, Russell clinched his win with a single-leg takedown in the last second of the match. He reacted with humility and joined his parents in the stands before being called to the podium. Interestingly, Ed and Maria Russell did not wear maize and blue. Instead, they wore white T-shirts with lightning bolts on the backs to replicate their son’s tattoo on his thigh.
Some may think that it represents Russell’s quick attacks or his storm-force approach, but it’s really just a sign of his past. In the 1970s, the wrestlers at Blair Academy, Russell’s high school in New Jersey, tattooed the symbol on their legs despite their Buccaneer mascot.
“It’s kind of a tradition we tried to start (back) up,” Russell said.
And it’s tradition itself that Russell creates. He became the first grappler since Iowa’s Mark Ironside (1995-98) to record four Big Ten titles. He was later named this year’s co-Most Outstanding Wrestler of the Championships, alongside Penn State’s Frank Molinaro.
Assistant coach Donny Pritzlaff described Russell as the hardest working and most consistent Wolverine. But he wasn’t as satisfied with the seventh-place team finish.
“I think it’s about time for our guys to start beating people they’re not supposed to,” Pritzlaff said. “We beat the guys we’re supposed to beat and we lose to the guys we’re supposed to lose to.”
No. 14 senior Zac Stevens proved Pritzlaff right and wrong. He pinned his two unranked opponents, but fell to Illinois’ No. 4 B.J. Futrell twice in the tournament. But en route to his fourth-place finish, the highest of his career, Stevens won a 3-2 upset over Purdue’s eighth-ranked Cashé Quiroga.
“Gotta hold your head up high,” Stevens said. “I wrestled as hard as I could.”
Though Michigan sought more than it achieved, it ended as a weekend of upsets, rivalry and Russell — a crowned champion.
“I’m glad that I could be a part of it,” Pritzlaff said.