In our season preview for the MAC, the first question that we asked was “Can anyone threaten Lock Haven?” The Bald Eagles have won each of the last two MAC Championships and lost one conference dual per year, along the way. With an All-American and four other past national qualifiers returning, it seemed like Lock Haven would be in the driver’s seat for a third consecutive title.
A conference tournament and dual success are two different animals, especially in a league as big as the MAC. Lock Haven has proven that three or four stars can carry them to a title and their balanced lineup will propel them through most MAC duals.
That may not be the case in 2024. On Friday, Lock Haven dropped their third conference dual meet and their tenth overall. So, if it isn’t Lock Haven’s year, then who?
In our preseason article, we mentioned perennial threat Central Michigan. The Chippewas have three veterans who will compete for MAC titles and have qualified for nationals in the past. CMU certainly remains a viable contender.
Another team we mentioned was Clarion, especially in a dual format. While Clarion generally is tough in dual meets, they haven’t taken that next step to be a favorite or as we labeled CMU, a viable contender.
How about Rider? The Broncs are unbeaten in conference duals, which is a plus; however, their overall profile isn’t great with out-of-conference losses to Drexel and Princeton.
Here’s a team that you (and I) may have overlooked and probably shouldn’t have…..Northern Illinois.
The Huskies moved to an impressive 12-2 mark with their 22-15 win over Lock Haven on Friday. Last weekend, they edged Buffalo, 18-16, and before that, they downed Central Michigan 22-10. The win over the Chippewas was only the second win for NIU over Central Michigan in the last 21 seasons.
Friday’s win over Lock Haven pushed the Huskies to 12 wins a mark that the team has hit only nine times in program history. The most recent occurrence was during the 2019-20 season when they amassed 13.
In mid-December, Northern Illinois downed in-state foe Northwestern, 18-17. That marked the first time since December of 2009 that the Huskies had beaten that Big Ten school. That same day, NIU head coach Ryan Ludwig earned his 100th career dual victory.
All year we’ve bemoaned how unpredictable the 125 lb weight class has been nationally. That hasn’t been the case for NIU, who has the services of Blake West, who is now 23-5 on the year and unbeaten in MAC duals. During the CMU dual, West was able to reverse one of those five losses. West narrowly missed out on NCAA qualification last year. He compiled a 24-9 record and fell by a single point to Jake Ferri (Kent State) in a true second-place bout at the MAC Championships.
Another familiar face that has stepped up in 2023-24 is Jaivon Jones at 149 lbs. Jones made an impact on the Lock Haven win as he pinned #33 Nick Stonecheck in the opening stanza. Against Cleveland State and Ohio, Jones earned wins over some of the best wrestlers from both squads. His record is now 11-4 on the year.
Ludwig and staff have also been getting contributions from some wrestlers who may have previously been unknown commodities outside of Dekalb. Heavyweight Jacobi Jackson is currently in the rankings, while Matt Zuber at 184 lbs has spent time in the top-33, as well. 141 lber Jacob Brya is an impressive redshirt freshman that garners consideration, as well. Zuber was a 10-3 winner over Colin Fegley in the Lock Haven win. Jackson is 9-1 in dual competition and holds a ranked win over Rider’s David Szuba.
One of the NIU wrestlers I was anticipating most coming into this year was 157 lber Munkhtulga Zuunbayan. In 2021, he had a great season debut at the Michigan State Open. Zuunbayan has shared starting duties this season, but has come on lately with solid wins against Cleveland State and a major decision in Friday’s win over Lock Haven.
Northern Illinois has a week off before finishing the 2023-24 regular season against SIU Edwardsville. They have a good shot at matching 2019-20 total of 13 dual wins. The only blemishes on the record for Ludwig’s team this season are an early-season loss to Purdue and a one-point setback to Rider in early-January. A week later, they rebounded to defeat another team I felt like could contend in the MAC, Ohio.
Unfortunately, at the DI level, our sport doesn’t provide many rewards for being good in dual competition. To really turn heads, the Huskies will have to shine in Kent, Ohio at the MAC Championships. Once again, a team with a few superstars will typically outshine a balanced attack. Northern Illinois has proven that they are a very solid dual lineup, they’ll just need their big guns to perform up to their capabilities, have an upset or two, and who knows what happens?
However the rest of the season plays out, it has been a very strong campaign for Ludwig and his team and they do deserve recognition.