At around noon last Sunday in Rolling Meadows, as preachers finished their sermons and Super Bowl parties were getting started, 20 of the best college wrestlers in the country were warming up inside a small gymnasium.

Normally this is “Mustang Territory,” as the mural says, but for this one day Rolling Meadows High School was home to the 16th-ranked Northwestern Wildcats, who were hosting the 3rd-ranked Illini. Or at least it would be, once the elementary-school kids got off the mat. The first contest of the day was between two local youth squads, which appeared to boost attendance–the 847 spectators were about 500 more than NU wrestling meets usually draw. There was a lot of purple in the crowd–for Northwestern and for RMHS–but there was plenty of U. of I. orange too. Several wrestlers from both teams are from the Chicago area. If not for the Northwestern mat and an announcer who was clearly enthusiastic about the Wildcats, the neutral site might have actually felt like a neutral site.

Just before the one o’clock start somebody finally turned off the Fresh Prince-era Will Smith blasting through the PA. Under the intensely yellow incandescent lights, the teams lined up on opposite sides of the mat. The Illini, rigid in their orange-and-navy Nike Dri-Fit tracksuits, were defending champions of the most dominant conference in Division I. The Wildcats, fidgety in their black cotton sweats, hadn’t beaten Illinois in a dual (a one-on-one wrestling meet) in ten years, and had never won a Big Ten title.

With each introduction the opponents met each other halfway and shook hands. One Illinois wrestler, though, went past the midpoint and stood just a few feet from the Northwestern phalanx. This was Donny Reynolds–ranked 16th in the country–waiting for his opponent in the 174-pound weight class to be called.

“And for Northwestern,” the announcer started, his voice getting louder, “an all-American, undefeated at 24 and 0, number two in the nation, sophomore Jake Herbert!” Herbert stepped forward, looked Reynolds in the eye and shook his hand, then turned and low-fived two teammates.

Herbert is a big reason the Wildcats believe they can beat Illinois today, that they can beat anybody any day. Ranked first in the nation in his weight class as a high school senior, when he followed in his father’s footsteps to win a Pennsylvania state championship, Herbert, the team’s only all-American, entered this meet 57-3, the winningest record in Northwestern history. Last season, as a redshirt freshman (a sophomore with four years of eligibility), Herbert placed third at the NCAA championships. Northwestern moved up one spot in the Big Ten standings after four straight years in last place and finished 14th overall at the NCAAs.

Head coach Tim Cysewski credits several young wrestlers with lifting the program but sees the turnaround as simply the “ebb and flow” of recruiting and staying healthy. Still, he admits, Herbert is an exception. “He does things that are very, very unique, that are automatic and instinctive, that you can’t teach. . . . He’s self-motivated. He gets it done whether the coach is watching or not.”

He’s also self-confident. “If I wrestle my best, I can’t be beaten,” Herbert says. “I want to say that I’m a national champion, that I’m the best in the world.” On this day he just needed to be better than Reynolds.

As the first match–the 125-pound weight class–got under way Herbert took off his hoodie and jogged. With 1:06 left and Northwestern’s eighth-ranked John Velez momentarily on his back, the unexpected happened: Velez rolled over Illinois’ third-ranked Kyle Ott and pinned him. Ott, a four-year starter and two-time NCAA runner-up, had never been pinned in college. Velez thumped his chest at the erupting crowd, then ran to the west end of the gym and started doing sprints. “I go till I feel really dead,” he said, “then I do ten more.” The score was 6-0, Northwestern.

Northwestern senior Daniel Quintela lost the 133 match, while Herbert jumped rope. Team score: 6-3, Northwestern. With Velez still running, sixth-ranked Ryan Lang–another promising sophomore and a four-time Ohio state champion–hung on to win the 141 match 2-1, giving Northwestern a six-point lead. During the 149 match Herbert got his left hand wrapped (he’s wrestled with a knuckle injury most of the season) and Velez puked into a trash can. Freshman backup Marty Gould wrestled courageously, losing by a point, making the score 9-6, Northwestern.

Herbert, who tore an ACL a year and a half ago, started doing deep leg stretches. At 157 unranked Greg Hagel lost to top-ranked Alex Tirapelle 10-2, giving Illinois their first lead, 10-9. During the 165 match, Herbert finally shed the last of five cotton shirts and finished a bottle of water. Eighteenth-ranked Will Durkee fell to Illinois’ eighth-ranked Mike Poeta, and the Illini went up by four. Time for Herbert.

Team points are correlated to the type and margin of individual victory: a pin or “fall,” which stops the match, generates six points; a “technical fall,” winning by 15 points or more by the end of the three three-minute periods, is worth five; a “major fall,” winning by between 8 and 14, is worth four; and a “decision,” to win by between 1 and 7, gives a team three. The pin is the standard, of course, but between highly ranked wrestlers it is uncommon.

Assistant coach Drew Pariano said Herbert told him before the match that he wanted to “tech-fall” Reynolds because “that’s what [Ben] Askren did to him.” Askren, a junior and two-time NCAA runner-up from the University of Missouri, is the only 174-pounder pollsters unanimously rank higher than Herbert. He tech-falled Reynolds in November and is now 34-0 with 24 pins. (Herbert has 9 pins.)

Herbert’s basic strategy to rocket the score was to collect two-point takedowns and reversals and one-point escapes. The whistle blew. “Set it up, Jake!” demanded a bleacher fan. “Elbow, elbow!” Cysewski yelled. Forty-four seconds into it Herbert recorded a takedown. “Hips, hips, hips!” Cysewski barked. “Break him down!” Pariano shouted. Reynolds escaped. With 50 seconds to go Herbert shot for Reynolds’s left leg, then gained control of his body–takedown. “Let’s escape!” Cysewski instructed him. Herbert let Reynolds escape, then at 18 seconds earned another takedown.

In the second period, with the score 6-2, Herbert added reversals. Reynolds seemed sluggish and the crowd grew agitated, shouting “Stall! Stall!” Between periods, with the score 10-4, Pariano motioned Herbert over. “We’re breaking him,” he said. Herbert responded between breaths, “He’s not broken yet.”

In the third Herbert continued his strategy. With a half-worried fixed expression, he looked like he was solving a problem rather than grappling with an athlete. With just 18 seconds left and the score 13-6–Reynolds’s only points coming on escapes–Cysewski yelled out, “You need a takedown, Jake–takedown!” In the final five seconds Herbert got one, giving him the eight-point margin he needed for a major fall and an extra team point. The dual was tied at 13.

Herbert left the mat and squatted for several seconds. He peeled his singlet from his upper body, put on a yellow long-sleeved shirt and a tie-dyed T-shirt over that, and started running sprints with Velez cheering him on. He finished his postmatch workout by doing handstand push-ups against a wall and sprinting across the gym two more times with Velez on his back.

On paper Northwestern had the advantage in only one of the three remaining contests–the heavyweight bout–so either sophomore Mike Tamillow or senior Matt Delguyd would have to score an upset. At 184 Tamillow, ranked 11th, was facing 4th-ranked Orland Park native and two-time all-American Pete Friedl. Herbert’s familiar with Friedl. Herbert came to this dual last year with a 75-0 record, dating back to high school. Friedl beat him, then topped him again at the Big Ten championships. They met one last time at the NCAA championships, where Herbert won to take third place.

Tamillow and Friedl traded takedowns and escapes throughout the match, and at one point Cysewski loudly knocked down a chair protesting a call. Through three periods the score was tied at four. But after officials checked their scoring, the referee raised Tamillow’s hand–he’d been awarded an extra point for “riding time,” a credit for controlling Friedl one minute longer than Friedl controlled him. The crowd, quiet during the delay, reignited as Tamillow’s teammates enveloped him. Northwestern was up by three. Before the next match started Tamillow began running his postmatch sprints, carrying Herbert on his back.

At 197 senior Matt Delguyd, ranked 12th and the only Big Ten title winner on the team, narrowly lost to Illinois’ 8th-ranked Tyrone Byrd, evening the score at 16 with one match to go. The last time a Northwestern meet was this close this late was last season’s dual against Iowa, when Herbert sparked a comeback that led to the Wildcats’ first victory over the Hawkeyes in 37 years.

Northwestern’s Dustin Fox outranks Illinois’ Matt Weight, but Weight beat Fox the last time they wrestled. At any sign of action the crowd was on its feet, but there were no takedowns, and without either player accumulating enough riding time, the 1-1 match went into overtime. Then another, and then another. By the third overtime, when wrestlers have just 30 seconds to score, the crowd was chanting, “Let’s go Fox! Let’s go Fox!” Starting in the down position, Fox, who looked like he was going to pass out, escaped and then held off Weight to get the win. The crowd went bananas. A woman in the bleachers yelled into a cell phone, “He did it! Dustin did it!” Pariano lifted Velez off the ground in a bear hug. The team mobbed Fox, who finally collapsed as they continued slapping and hollering at him. Across the mat, Illinois’ wrestlers watched the celebration like they’d just lost the World Series. The final score: 19-16.

Afterward the schoolkids gathered around the Wildcats, asking for autographs on flyers handed out before the meet. One boy, still in his wrestling singlet and club jacket, had collected Fox’s and Herbert’s signatures. “What do you know about those guys?” I asked him. “Not much,” he said. “Just that they’re good wrestlers.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jeffrey Pape.