IU wrestling sent three athletes to the NCAA Wrestling Championships this week. Sophomores DJ Washington and Cayden Rooks and redshirt sophomore Graham Rooks all won matches for IU before being eliminated from the tournament Friday morning in the second consolation round.
Washington and Graham Rooks qualified for the tournament after sixth-place finishes at the Big Ten Tournament March 6-7 and were seeded No. 9 and No. 21 in their respective weight classes. Cayden Rooks was an at-large bid and won two matches despite being seeded No. 32 in the field of 33.
To get into the first round, Cayden wrestled in a preliminary match against Hofstra University’s Vinny Vespa, which Cayden won by major decision, 10-1. The win put him in the field of 32 in the 141-pound weight class, where he faced Iowa’s No. 1 seed and Big Ten Champion Jaydin Eierman and went on to lose by technical fall, 20-5.
“The guy that’s in the finals who could potentially be national champ, Cayden was going toe-to-toe with him, had taken him down and almost threw him to his back, so it just shows what he’s capable of doing,” IU head coach Angel Escobedo said Saturday.
Cayden moved to the consolation rounds after his loss to Eierman, where he took down Rider University’s No. 17 seed McKenzie Bell in the first round 6-1. After surviving the first day of action, Cayden was eliminated Friday morning with a loss to No. 15 seed Clay Carlson from South Dakota State University.
“He’s right there, I think for him it’s just getting stronger in the offseason, really hitting the weight room,” Escobedo said. “I think he missed that because of COVID this year.”
Graham, the older Rooks brother, went 1-2 in the tournament in the 149-pound weight class. He lost his first-round match 8-7 to Iowa’s No. 12 seed Max Murin, a match he led 4-1 after the first period and led 6-4 in the third.
He took down Michigan State’s No. 28 seed Peyton Omania by major decision,10-1, before falling to Michigan’s No.11 seed Kanen Storr 7-3 in the second consolation round. Escobedo said while the results were unfortunate, Rooks’ scores got better from the Big Ten Tournament and that shows the improvements he’s made.
“I thought he wrestled great. I think if it would have been a different draw, Graham could have been All American,” Escobedo said. “If you look at Yahya Thomas, who Graham just beat at Big Tens, he got third at NCAAs. [Thomas] got eighth at Big Ten, it’s just a brutal weight class.”
The No. 9 seed, Washington, who was ranked as high as No. 6 nationally this year at 174 pounds, also finished the tournament 1-2. After winning his first match in the championship bracket 5-3 against Minnesota’s No. 25 seed Jake Allar, Washington lost his next two matches and was eliminated Friday.
“I think he let that loss really sting and hurt too much that he wasn’t really focused for that wrestleback,” Escobedo said.
Washington will wrestle in a last-chance qualifier for the Olympic trials next Saturday. He finished the season 10-7.
Escobedo said after competing in this tournament, Washington and the Rooks brothers can help show the rest of the team how close they are and the work that needs to be done moving forward.
“These guys are seeing guys they beat on the All American stand, and they’re realizing that if you put in the work and you really believe, you can be All American,” Escobedo said.
He plans on giving the team a week off before preparations begin for next season, but Escobedo expects they’ll be working during that week anyway.
“You can already see, these guys are hungry, they’re hungry to make that next step and be the first All American in five or six years,” Escobedo said.