It took more than three periods to decide the match the last time Northern Illinois sophomore wrestler Steve Bleise faced Old Dominion’s Michael Hayes.
Now the two conference opponents will square off in the first round of the NCAA Championships on Thursday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Bleise, who comes into the tournament as the No. 14 seed at 149 pounds, is 2-0 on the season against Hayes – including a 9-7 overtime victory in the Mid-American Conference Championships earlier this month.
“Every match is a brand new situation and brings a life of its own, so we prepare from scratch and we have to go out there and let it fly,” NIU coach Ryan Ludwig said. “You can’t let it affect you because the minute you say, ‘I’ve beaten this guy twice, it should happen again,’ then you’re in trouble.”
Bleise also defeated Hayes, 9-3, during a dual earlier this year. The sophomore is making his second appearance in the NCAA Championships and is joined by four other Huskies in the biggest tournament of the season – freshman Brock Hudkins (125) and seniors Shaun’Qae McMurty (165), Trace Engelkes (174) and Shawn Scott (197).
Scott is making his third trip to the NCAA Championships and he finished in the final 12 during the 2016 tournament. However, Ludwig said Scott’s success last season doesn’t matter heading into this week.
“Last year is last year,” Ludwig said. “It’s a totally new year. It’s a completely new tournament and a new three-day season now. The focus now is to get out there and get to his offense and have an aggressive mindset. When Shawn is on the attack, that’s when he’s at his best.”
Scott (24-7) is the No. 11 seed and will face off against Cornell’s Benjamin Honis (27-13) in the first round.
Engelkes, who narrowly missed the NCAA Championships last season, is the No. 15 seed and will wrestle against Princeton’s Jonathan Schleifer (27-13) in the first round. Engelkes is coming off a second-place finish in the MAC Championships.
Hudkins (18-10) and McMurty (10-10) are both making their first trip to the NCAA Championships and had a successful showing at the MAC tournament. Hudkins finished fourth to earn one of the five automatic bids and McMurty took third to qualify.
“On paper, you have to say that (it was a surprise), but we were talking about that before the MAC Championship, and we fully expected Brock to be able to qualify with five spots and Shaun’Qae had the next best chance with three,” Ludwig said. “I really liked how he was competing. As a coaching staff, we were 100 percent confident that our guys had a great shot at getting those bids.”
Hudkins faces No. 5 seed Tim Lambert (28-6, Nebraska) and McMurty faces No. 1 seed Isaiah Martinez (27-0, Illinois) in the first round.
This is the 46th consecutive season that the Huskies have sent at least one wrestler to the NCAA Championships and they’ve sent a combined nine in the past two seasons. The five who qualified this season are the most by an NIU wrestling team since 1985. On Wednesday, Ludwig said he liked his team’s attitude the night before the important tournament.
“I think overall, our attitude and energy are in a great place right now,” he said. “From our freshman Brock Hudkins to our fifth-year seniors, everybody seems laid back and ready to go.”