As he heads into his 15th and final season at the helm of the Northern Illinois University wrestling program, head coach Dave Grant is having fun.
“I’m really enjoying it,” Grant said. “Just looking at one year, and not having to concern myself with other things that are not fun about this job, I can concentrate on the fun things, which are getting in the wrestling room and helping the guys. It’s been awesome.”
While Grant is hoping the fun he is having rubs off on his team and their performances on the mat, he knows, he is only half of the equation.
“It’s a two-way street,” he said. “The more motivated athletes you have that are into it, the more fun it is to coach them. The happy you are, they can feel that a little bit. It’s been a lot of fun. These guys are eager, they want to learn.”
Grant’s 29-man squad features plenty of youth, with 17 freshmen/redshirt freshmen. However, it is balanced by a solid core of upperclassmen that will provide the experience and leadership necessary for the Huskies to succeed in 2010-11. There are several wrestlers on the roster that will be changing weight classes this season, which will add to the squad’s depth and make the team better.
“It makes you more competitive as a team,” Grant said. “We could have a team that’s basically 60-70 percent different from last year. You might have some of the same wrestlers involved but they’ll be at different weights.”
Northern Illinois has five seniors, including three national qualifiers that Grant and the Huskies have counted on year after year. Leading the group is two-time NCAA qualifier Bryan Deutsch (Columbia City, Ind./Columbia City) at 157. Deutsch posted a 20-6 record last season and took second at the 2010 Mid-American Conference Wrestling Championships to earn an at-large bid to NCAAs.
One of the more interesting weights to following this season is at 141. Two Huskies that have advanced to the national stage will be competing for the starting spot. Pat McLemore (Hinckley, Ohio/Padua Franciscan) and Tristen DeShazer (Wichita, Kan./Wichita West) earned NCAA bids in 2008 and 2009 respectively with McLemore competing at 141 and DeShazer at 133. This year, DeShazer is moving up a weight class and the two will be competing for the starting spot at 141.
Another Huskie moving up a weight class is senior Vince Castillo (Western Springs, Ill./Lyons Township). Castillo filled in admirably at 141 when McLemore missed a few matches last season. Castillo, who posted an 11-5 record last season, including a 2-0 mark in MAC action, will be vying for the starting spot at 149. The fifth senior, Dakota Greenhaw (Monett, Mo./Monett), is one of three Heavyweights on the team. He won 12 matches at 285 in 2010.
“All those guys are seniors,” Grant said. “They’ve been tested and they’ve been in the battles. They know what it’s like to compete in Division I. Three of those have been to the national tournament. We’re putting a lot of weight on those seniors to lead the team.”
Juniors Brad Dieckhaus (St. Charles, Mo./Francis Howell Central), Izzy Montemayor (Barrington, Ill./Grant Community) and Zach Taylor (Machesney Park, Ill./Harlem) and sophomore Zach Benzio (Connellsville, Pa./Connellsville Area) is another group of Huskies Grant expects to make an impact this season. Dieckhaus returns to the mat this year after redshirting in 2009-10. Like DeShazer and Castillo, Montemayor, Taylor and Benzio will be adjusting to a new weight class.
“Brad (Dieckhaus) is a super-motivated individual,” he said. “He has great leadership qualities. He’s a guy that is one of the hardest trainers we have. He and Vince (Castillo) are the two hardest-nosed individuals we have in our room. They’ve made their success on work ethic.
“Zach (Benzio) wrestled some tough matches last year. I just think if he were down a weight class, he would have seen more success.”
Montemayor and Taylor are essentially switching weight classes. After spending two seasons competing at 125, Montemayor will be competing at 133 this year, while Taylor will drop a weight and will wrestle at 125. Benzio, who posted a 12-16 mark for the Huskies wrestling at 184 as a freshman, will wrestle at 174 in his second campaign as a Huskie.
There is a crop of young guys Grant feels can really add to the team this season. Redshirt freshmen Kevin Fanta (Lake Zurich, Ill./lake Zurich), Matt Mougin (Columbus Junction, Iowa/Columbus), and Shane Rosenberry (Lancaster, Pa./Elizabethtown Area), and sophomore Chris Smith (Portland, Maine/Deering) have developed through two years in the program and will look to push some of the veterans. Fanta and Smith will challenge at 133, while Rosenberry and junior college transfer Mike Lukowski (East Dundee, Ill./Harper College) will compete for the starting spot at 197. Mougin will have to battle Dan Burk (Naperville, Ill./Neuqua Valley) and Ryan Olep (Lowell, Mich./Lowell) for the starting spot at 165.
This season, as is the case every year, the Huskies goal in 2010-11 is two-fold.
“We want to make a presence at the NCAA Championships and we want to make a run at the MAC title,” Grant said. “Obviously, we’re going to have to get better and work harder. We have a long way to go, but it’s possible. I’d love to get the whole team to nationals. That would be a wonderful thing.”
To prep Northern Illinois for the MAC Championships, which will be held March 5 and March 6 in the Convocation Center, Grant has once again put together a challenging schedule.
NIU opens the season Saturday, Nov. 13, at the Michigan State Open. The Huskies will take on the first of three Big Ten opponents they travel to Bloomington, Ind., to compete in the Indiana Duals. One of the four teams they will face will be Indiana.
The Huskies then welcome Michigan State to the Convocation Center for this year’s Showcase Meet, scheduled for Friday, Dec. 3, and will head to Evanston to face Northwestern and Findlay. NIU returns to Northwestern a week and a half later to compete Wednesday, Dec. 29, and Thursday, Dec. 30, at the prestigious Midlands Championships.
Northern Illinois opens conference action Thursday, Jan. 6, against defending MAC champions Central Michigan. The Huskies will host MAC foes Ohio and Eastern Michigan and travel to Kent State and Buffalo.
For more information on NIU wrestling and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.