It’s been a tough beginning of the season for Northwestern (2-4, 0-1 Big Ten), which had an impressive early season victory against Virginia Tech and close losses to Stanford and North Dakota State.
It’s getting more difficult from here, as the Wildcats are set to take on No. 1 Penn State (4-0, 0-0 Big Ten) on Friday in Evanston. This comes a week after NU’s loss to No. 11 Nebraska in the first Big Ten match of the year.
“Big Ten wrestling is a beast,” coach Matt Storniolo said. “It’s an animal. There’s no other conference that can come close to being as competitive as the Big Ten wrestling conference. There’s no comparison for any other sport for what it means to compete against Big Ten wrestling.”
The Cats are the underdogs in several of the weight classes against the Nittany Lions, which have yet to lose a match all season and are outscoring opponents by an average of 42 points.
Storniolo said a NU win would play a key role in securing the team a postseason tournament bid.
“From 125 to 285, every guy has an opportunity to go out there and better themselves,” Storniolo said. “Guys have to recognize that it’s a great chance for them to surprise the rest of the world, to help their cause for qualifying for the nationals or earning a seed at the national tournament.”
Sophomore Sebastian Rivera’s performance has been a bright spot. The newly minted Big Ten wrestler of the week is undefeated on the season, notching a 14-0 record throughout his first six matches, including a 5-0 record against ranked opponents.
Sophomore Colin Valdiviez said Rivera’s rise to the upper echelon of the Big Ten has given team members confidence in their own abilities to reach their potential.
“Watching Sebastian … just gives everybody on the team a lot of hope,” Valdiviez said. “Because we’re all training in the same environment and we’ve seen how much better he can get, and it makes us all think that we can get to that next level too.”
Valdiviez said he’s grown as a wrestler by practicing against Rivera, combating the quick offensive style often employed by the latter.
“He just brings a lot to the table that you won’t see from anybody else in the country because he’s that good,” Valdiviez said.
Even with a typical performance from Rivera, NU will need top showings from all 10 of its wrestlers to get past the expected onslaught from Penn State.
Sophomore Ryan Deakin, the third-ranked wrestler in his weight class, said the team has been working on reinforcing its commitment to play its own style, refocusing on offense and work ethic.
“We’re a really young team, but we’re a really talented team,” Deakin said. “(We’re) just believing in ourselves and continuing to remind each other to just go out there with a lot of heart.”