IU wrestling’s 2020 freshman class dealt with a season like no other this year. Head coach Angel Escobedo said this class missed out on a lot because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the team showed resilience and heart in the face of it.
Escobedo said his freshmen would typically come to IU for six weeks in the summer to take classes and acclimate to what college was going to be like, but this year they weren’t able to do that. He said they missed out on living in the dorms and being able to interact with other student-athletes and people on campus.
“I mean that’s a big part of the college experience,” Escobedo said. “And these kids missed a lot.”
While it’s unfortunate, he said not having those outlets forced the team together and made them closer. Once practices started in October, the freshman class was determined and set the tone in preseason workouts, and Escobedo said the group picked up the skills it needed to learn quickly as a result.
Escobedo said this class would probably be the one he’ll remember the most because of everything they went through this season, and their growth from October to the end of the season in March was tremendous.
“They were really getting accustomed to our culture and really taking ownership of that, and just shows their maturity level of just how they’re able to embrace hard situations,” Escobedo said. “They really showed that they were grateful for the opportunity, and they really took it to heart.”
In what was already a challenging season, 125-pound freshman Jacob Moran was tasked with filling the shoes of former NCAA Tournament qualifier and redshirt senior Brock Hudkins, who suffered his second consecutive season-ending injury after two matches.
Moran saw his first dual action during IU’s 18-16 win over Northwestern on Jan. 30, the team’s first victory of the season. He lost a hard-fought matchup 3-5 against redshirt sophomore Michael DeAugustino, giving Northwestern a 3-0 advantage to start the match, but Moran’s energy in a hard fought match against a nationally ranked opponent set the tone for his teammates on the way to the comeback, upset win of the No. 24-ranked Wildcats.
“He showed us right there that he was embracing the opportunity,” Escobedo said. “I think the guys they really responded every time he was in the lineup, they went out there and they competed hard after him because he’s competing hard for seven minutes.”
Moran went on to wrestle in six dual meets for the Hoosiers, picking up a 2-4 record and a 5-7 record counting extra matches and the Big Ten Championships. His opponents were ranked in the top 15 nationally in all four dual match losses and in IU’s dual meet with Nebraska, Moran came within 2 points of Liam Cronin, a former Hoosier ranked No. 6 in the country at the time.
When the time came for Moran to step up, he showed he was embracing the opportunity and his growth, Escobedo said. For Moran, he said the key to being ready to enter the starting lineup was training everyday like he was already there.
Escobedo and Hudkins helped him through the experience as a young wrestler when his time came. He said having someone like Hudkins, who has competed in the Big Ten and NCAA Championships, telling him to keep his head up and that he’s the best helped him throughout the year, along with the guidance from a former national champion in Escobedo.
“Just having him in my ear and having Angel in my ear just telling me that I’m getting better, telling me that I can do it, telling me that I can win really helped me mentally and allowed me to focus on what I needed to focus on and just go out there with just a free mindset,” Moran said.
While Moran had to step into the starting lineup in IU’s duals, freshman Robert Deters was backing up redshirt freshman DJ Washington, who beat eventual-NCAA Champion Carter Starocci from Penn State on Jan. 30, in the 174-pound weight class and named Big Ten Wrestler of the Week.
Escobedo said he should probably have been wrestling in a lower weight class, but Deters said he’d wrestle anywhere when asked to be Washington’s backup. He put up a 2-6 record in extra matches this season, and Escobedo said he performed well against high level opponents.
Even outside the starting lineup, Deters had a positive effect on the team.
“What he brings to the table is that energy that we needed in the culture,” Escobedo said. “He’s just so happy to be there, he’s thankful, he’s grateful and he wants to get really good.”
Escobedo said it’s usually a shock for freshmen who struggle in their first year after dominating in high school like Deters. Even after posting a 45-1 record and winning a state championship his senior year at Castle High School, Escobedo said Deters’ confidence never wavered as he pushed through this season.
“I never saw his confidence get deteriorated, I never saw him shell up,” Escobedo said. “He was just embracing the opportunity, and that’s really important because a lot of freshmen when they’re thrown out there and they get beat up you know, they’re not used to it.”
Escobedo said he saw Deters’ hunger to get better and beat the guys he lost to this season, and that hunger is really important and shows a lot of character.
Between Escobedo, Moran and Deters, there are lofty goals for this freshman class. Moran and Deters both said they want to become All-Americans at IU. With an extra year of eligibility, the freshmen will have another four years to reach that goal and help make IU one of the best programs in the country.
“I think that this freshman class everyone is willing to put in the work and everyone knows what it takes,” Moran said. “So I think if everyone can come together and everyone is on board with trying to make the team better on the mat and off the mat I think we can get it done.”
Moran also said Escobedo is building a team that will be atop the Big Ten and competing for national championships in the near future, and Escobedo said the adversity this class faced will help them down the road.
“With this team, what they’ve been through just learning all this adversity, these guys should be able to lead our program to the highest of heights,” Escobedo said. “By that time when they’re juniors and seniors we’re looking to be a top-10 program and I think no matter what there’s going to be nothing like what they went through this year.”