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Even in defeat, family continues to steady IU wrestling



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Redshirt junior Liam Cronin wrestles Nebraska redshirt freshman Alex Thomsen Feb. 9 at Wilkinson Hall. IU lost to Nebraska 6-35. Joy Burton

Redshirt freshman Graham Rooks nodded his head toward section one of the Wilkinson Hall bleachers after picking up his fifth ranked win of the season on Sunday.

There sat his mom, Michelle, in row six, and his dad Benjamin, just one above. Rooks gave them a sign of acknowledgement in IU’s 35-6 defeat to Nebraska.

To open the afternoon, IU freshman Eddie Bolivar was flipped on his back by Nebraska’s No. 6 Chad Red Jr., resulting in a pin less than one minute into the match. 

Then IU immediately cut the lead in half in the 149-pound clash. No. 15 Graham Rooks and No. 14 Collin Purinton were locked in a tie at 2-2 in the third period when Purinton got hit with a stalling call. The extra point was all that Rooks needed, and he took a 3-2 win.

“Nebraska is a tough team,” IU head coach Angel Escobedo said. “I thought that our guys came out to compete for the most part, but we could have done a better job.”

After Rooks’ victory, IU senior Fernando Silva was only able to muster one point in a 9-1 loss at 157 pounds. 

Then, like the Hoosiers have seen happen all season, the overall score quickly spiraled out of control. An initial three-point deficit quickly swelled to 19-3 at the halfway point in the match.

When the IU wrestlers weren’t being pinned, they were still being dominated. At 184 pounds, Nebraska’s No. 11 Taylor Venz ended the bout with IU’s Jake Hinz in the second period with a 15-0 technical fall.

IU freshman Cayden Rooks, who was searching for his 20th win of the season, came up short.

No. 23 junior Liam Cronin added the final three points for IU after picking up his sixth consecutive win, finishing with a score of 4-1. Cronin has upset two ranked opponents in the stretch.

A majority of IU’s lineup, besides the Cayden and Graham Rooks and Liam Cronin, has been flat a majority of the season. The Hoosiers have been unable to make adjustments and, like Sunday, have fallen into the same script when they are forced to wrestle against ranked wrestlers.

One of the keys to the Rooks’ success is a value that Escobedo has reiterated over the course of the season: family.

“It just shows that parents are welcome to come watch matches,” Escobedo said. “The coaching staff stops to talk to them. It’s really a family atmosphere here. We’re going to continue to grow this family.”

Michelle and Benjamin Rooks have made it to almost every match, sometimes having to sacrifice time at their jobs. They’re planning on traveling to the Big Ten Tournament in Evanston, Illinois. Along with the parents, grandparents and former teammates have also shown up to see the Rooks brothers wrestle. 

On Sunday, the family fought through snowy weather in their 45-minute drive from Columbus East to Bloomington.

“It’s nice having such a big support team coming to the duals no matter where it is,” Graham said. ”I’m just really thankful.”

Earlier in the season, he picked up consecutive wins against top-25 wrestlers from Northwestern and Purdue. His parents were there for those matches too. It worked again against Nebraska when Rooks continued his roll against ranked opponents.

Michelle’s head was buried in her gray Indiana shirt or sometimes just into her hands during a majority of her sons’ matches on Sunday. She’d occasionally stop to clap or yell encouragement. 

“It’s exciting, but it's nerve-racking,” Michelle said. 

Wrestling has always been in the bloodlines for the Rooks brothers. Benjamin wrestled and coached the boys, and their grandfather, Ray, competed in Columbus' first wrestling match for Columbus High School in 1961.

Graham said he likes to give a nod of appreciation after his matches to thank his lineage.

“Just looking up at him at letting him know ‘yeah we did it,’” Rooks said.

In the match against Wisconsin in late January, Rooks took down No. 13 Cole Martin 4-3. After his arm was raised, he pointed to the middle of section one. That’s where his fans always are.

That one was for family.

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