IU’s wrestling team will compete in the Big Ten Wrestling Championships Saturday and Sunday. The Hoosiers — whose two Big Ten dual wins this season were their most since the 2016-17 season — are led by No. 9 sophomore DJ Washington, who is the No. 5 seed in the tournament in the 174-pound weight class. The tournament will be broadcasted on Big Ten Network starting at 10 a.m Saturday.
Come Saturday, IU will be looking to make some noise at the nation’s most competitive conference championship. Based on the most recent NCAA Coaches Poll, the 14-team Big Ten Conference has at least eight wrestlers ranked in the top 33 of all ten weight classes, with a total of 99 wrestlers nationally ranked.
“It’s a big mindset tournament just because you have one good guy after the next,” IU head coach Angel Escobedo said in a press conference Wednesday. “It’s going to be hard to blow open those matches, but if you’re mentally locked in to do the best things that you do and win close matches you’ll be fine.”
Washington said the mental aspect of the sport is something he’s picked up from Escobedo. He said Escobedo has helped him understand how to think about the sport rather than just perform, and that has helped him get through the Big Ten season and tournaments like the one he faces Saturday.
“I’m good in the performance part, but it’s like chess, you’ve got to know the mental part of it,” Washington said.
After finishing 6-2 in Big Ten duals this season, Washington understands people outside the program view him as a standout on this team. However, he said because everyone in the wrestling room is working toward the same goals, he and his teammates — who he calls his brothers — are all one in the same.
“We’re all just trying to get through these practices every day and be the best wrestler we can be, so i guess it’s just normal,” Washington said.
Two more Hoosiers are ranked among the top 33 nationally. That includes No. 18 redshirt sophomore Graham Rooks and No. 25 sophomore Nick South, who wrestle in the 149-pound and 165-pound weight classes, respectively. Rooks and South both hold No. 9 seeds in the tournament, and the next-highest-seeded Hoosier is Rooks’ little brother sophomore Cayden Rooks, who is the No. 10 seed in the 141-pound weight class.
Escobedo said this tournament is an opportunity for his younger wrestlers to gain experience and get a feel for the atmosphere of the tournament and how tough it is. He brought up No. 14 seeded Santos Cantu, a freshman Hoosier who has only wrestled one match this year because of injury, as someone who will especially benefit from the experience.
“He’s going to go to the Big Tens maybe not as ready as he should be,” Escobedo said about Cantu. “But the experience that he’s going to gain is going to help him throughout his career.”
Due to the NCAA granting athletes an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Escobedo has told his wrestlers this is a free year to gain experience competing in the Big Ten.
He said his biggest takeaway this season has been the progression of the program and he views it as something they can build off of. He also hopes to double the amount of NCAA qualifiers on the team this year after having two last year.
“Every year we’re getting better and that’s what we need to see,” Escobedo said.
It will have been almost two weeks since IU’s last match against Purdue, and Escobedo said it was nice to have an extra week of fine-tuning before the team’s “peak week.” In preparation for the tournament, Escobedo said the team has backed off practices this week to ensure their bodies are rested and ready to go.
“We’re trying to have our body feel good, not beat up,” Escobedo said. “All the work, all the Big Ten grind is over, so now it’s taking it one match at a time and realizing that we’re ready to peak.”