Judah Newby | Assistant Sports Editor
The Wheaton Thunder wrestling team took to the championship mat last weekend at the 2014 CCIW Wrestling Conference Championships in Naperville. Wheaton finished third among four competing schools with 63 team points, just behind Elmhurst College in second place (69.5) and champion Augustana College (83), while North Central took fourth (61).
At last year’s Championships, Wheaton finished second overall as a team. But fifth-year Head Coach Jim Gruenwald told The Record this week that this year’s finish is the more impressive one.
“We still had overall better results than last year when we placed second,” Gruenwald said in an email. “Last year we had four in the finals and one individual Champion, but this year we had five in the finals with three champs.”
Those five individual finalists included junior Mark Savenok at 157-pounds, freshman Stephen Aiello at 165-pounds, senior Matt McCrary at 174-pounds, junior Dan Olsen at 184-pounds, and senior Mitch Steed at 197-pounds. Savenok, Aiello and McCrary all came away with conference championships at their respective weight classes, while Olsen and Steed finished strong as runners-up.
“On paper Wheaton was supposed to place fourth as a team,” Gruenwald explained of his team’s weekend. “However, the team race was tight and any one team had a chance to be the CCIW Champions.”
Savenok’s title at 157 is his second conference title in his three-year Wheaton career. What made this one extra meaningful was that he had to defeat the top-seeded Josh Tardy of North Central in the championship round, after Tardy had defeated him in both of the previous two meets this season. Gruenwald said Savenok’s result was “a very impressive turnaround,” noting the previous matchup between the two wrestlers was lopsided in favor of Tardy, but Savenok was able to get the best of his rival when it mattered most.
McCrary, wrestling in his final season, also took home the title at 174-pounds. His path to the top was equally impressive, as he took down a former All-American from 2012 in Augustana’s Jordan Richardson in the championship match with a 5-3 decision. It was a fittingly impressive stamp on an impressive season for the senior, who took fourth in his weight class last year.
Not to be outdone, Aiello stormed through his class at 165-pounds, winning both his semifinal and final matches by Major Decisions — a winning margin of at least 8 points.
Steed gutted out a dramatic victory in his semifinal match in order to make the championship round. He rallied late in the match against North Central’s Casey Greenburg to force overtime, then won by takedown over Greenburg to make the finals. A 12-4 major decision loss to Danny Balderas of Elmhurst gave Steed runners-up honors at the 197-pound class.
Senior Dan Olsen earned a 4-1 decision in his semifinal match at 184-pounds before also taking runner-up honors in the final.
Following the strong performances of the many wrestlers at the Conference Championships, the Thunder now set their focus on the Midwest Regional Tournament this weekend in Crawfordsville, Ind. The top three finishers at each class at the Regional will qualify for the National Tournament in mid-March.
“On paper, we should not advance anyone,” Gruenwald noted. “However, last year we were in the same position and two advanced to Nationals, and one, Dan Olsen, became an (All-American).”
While Wheaton wrestling’s fine 2013-14 season is nearing its end, Coach Gruenwald has been thankful for the year’s overall success, calling the teams 11-1 dual meet record and three conference champions a “testimony to an answered prayer.” And as far as potential success at this weekend’s Regionals?
“We will be praying for the same.”