By Mike Zoller, NUSports.com
EVANSTON, Ill. — In the Tsirtsis family you’re born with wrestling headgear. Northwestern wrestler Jason Tsirtsis added onto his family’s wrestling legacy by not only winning an NCAA Championship this year, but also becoming the first freshman Wildcat to win a title.
With a family full of decorated wrestlers, Tsirtsis followed suit winning four straight Indiana high school championships at Crown Point High School and was named the 2012 InterMat High School Wrestler of the Year.
Tsirtsis had the benefit of being guided by his older brother Alex, who himself had been a four-time high school state champion never losing once in those four years compiling a record of 236-0.
“He’s been an influence ever since I began wrestling,” Tsirtsis said. “But I’d say the biggest time frame of him helping was after his career in college. He came home after college and he was involved all the time with me. He knows my wrestling better than anyone. He’s able to watch me and critique me better than anyone.”
With the Tsirtsis name and a laundry list of awards and championships the recruiting process was intense. It came down to Oklahoma State and Northwestern. Tsirtsis saw pros and cons to both programs but in the end he chose Northwestern not only because it was closer to home, but he saw the program on the rise and wanted to be part of something special.
“Oklahoma State has the richest wrestling history ever in the NCAA,” Tsirtsis said. “But Oklahoma State is 14 hours away and NU is only an hour. Having that hometown support is really crucial. Big Ten wrestling is the best in the country and we’re an up-and-coming program. We’re not a powerhouse or the best yet but we’re on our way.”
Head coach Drew Pariano called his recruiting battle with Oklahoma State the toughest he had ever faced.
“They (Oklahoma State) won 34 team national titles,” he said. “It’s a compliment that we were recruiting against them. The best guys are going to choose wrestling powers and it’s an added bonus that we have a great academic program here.”
Tsirtsis wrestled unattached during his first year in Evanston, which allowed him to develop without burning a year of eligibility.
During that first year Tsirtsis wrestled most of the time in the 141 lbs. weight class but felt more comfortable at 149 lbs. and made the decision to keep the weight rather than constantly battle to lose it.
“I could have made 141 if I reshaped my body and dieted,” he said. “At that point you’re not focused on wrestling, you’re focused on cutting weight. You’re not in the right mindset. That unattached year made me realize I had to move up a weight class and get a little bit bigger.”
By any measure Tsirtsis had a successful and productive year wrestling unattached. He went 18-3 and won three tournaments, while placing eighth at the 50th annual Midlands Championships. He also wrestled at the Junior World Team Trials and represented the U.S. at the Junior World Championships in Bulgaria.
Coming back to Evanston to begin his first real season of collegiate wrestling Pariano knew Tsirtsis could be capable of big things.
“Before he even started I was telling people he was going to be a four-time national champ,” Pariano said. “I don’t do that too much – if ever. I don’t know if I’ve ever done that. If I say something like that it probably comes from pretty deep within.”
Junior heavyweight Mike McMullan noticed Tsirtsis’ talent from the start. As a team leader he watched over the freshman but didn’t mentor him in the traditional way.
“Jason’s a unique kid,” McMullan said. “He doesn’t need the same guidance that other younger kids need. He knows what he is capable of. Being someone who shares similar aspirations, we can relate to one another and talk about our goals and our vision for how matches should go.”
It wasn’t a smooth start for Tsirtsis. After some early success he suffered three losses in a span of two weeks. He turned those losses into positives, and they would wind up as his only three losses of the entire 2013-14 season
“We watched and evaluated those matches,” assistant coach Jay Borschel said. “We saw some things where he didn’t control the match. He didn’t control the hand fighting. The other guy pushed him around and controlled him.”
“He needed to change his workout regimen and probably get a little better sleep,” Pariano said. “I don’t think it was necessarily a wake-up call but it was definitely a message that, ‘Hey if I want to win a national title I need to do ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’’ and he did.”
It’s not uncommon for a young wrestler to stumble during the middle of the year. McMullan said one of the hardest things to adjust to is the full grind of how long the NCAA season lasts.
“The one thing a lot of people find out from that redshirt year is that they don’t realize the length of the season,” McMullan said. “When you’re actually in the lineup you’re competing week in and week out. He made the adjustments and remembered his capabilities. He had a little hiccup in the middle and ended on a pretty long win streak.”
Tsirtsis wouldn’t lose again. He notched individual victories over wrestlers from No. 1 Penn State and No. 2 Iowa earning him a No. 3 seed in the 2014 Big Ten Tournament. On the way to the Big Ten Championship, Tsirtsis knocked off the two wrestlers seeded above him, and following the tournament he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Despite being the Big Ten Champion at 149lbs, Tsirtsis entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed. Something that didn’t sit right with Pariano.
“I was not happy with the draw,” Pariano said. “To win the Big Ten Tournament you have to be an absolute stud. But he (Tsirtsis) had a really good perspective on it saying ‘I have to beat everyone anyways so I might as well beat them early.’”
In the quarterfinals Tsirtsis defeated the reigning NCAA champion at 141 lbs. only to follow that up with a victory over the No. 1 seed in the semifinals. In the semis Tsirtsis had just nine seconds to escape his opponent’s hold – he got out with one second remaining.
“It was an intensity-filled nine seconds,” he said. “Probably the most intense nine seconds I’ve had in my life.”
It was also the match that would provide the timeless image of the tournament as Pariano hoisted a bloodied Tsirtsis up into the air just after his victory.
“I didn’t know he was bleeding,” Pariano said. “Back in the hall I was like, ‘You’re bleeding?’ They stitched him up right there – three stitches.”
After notching All-American status with a win in the semifinal match, Tsirtsis went into the final match and, true to his “Cardiac Cat” style tournament, took down the No. 11 seed in overtime to become the NCAA Champion.
“After I won it was like I hadn’t even won” Tsirtsis said. “It was overwhelming. As a kid you want to be an NCAA champ. To finally have the opportunity to reach that goal and succeed so quickly in my career is pretty surreal and hard to explain.”
Alex embraced Tsirtsis after the match. While he had been a highly touted recruit out of high school, he had never finished better than seventh at the NCAA Championships.
“I saw him after I got my award and gave him a big hug,” Jason said. “It was real emotional. It was a great moment.”
Tsirtsis is now focused on the offseason where he will wrestle in a few tournaments before returning to Evanston for the 2014-15 season. As the returning champ he’s preparing to be the wrestler to beat.
“People are going to come after him harder now than ever before,” Pariano said. “In wrestling its such a one-on-one sport that he’s going to have to be ready for every single match. The Big Ten isn’t going to get any easier. The (149 lbs.) weight class is going to remain one of the best in the country.”
Besides being the champion, Tsirtsis will also be looked to as a leader when the season starts. The Wildcats boast the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation and they will look to him for guidance.
“I’m more of a vocal guy than most,” Tsirtsis said. “I like to express what I think and see. I’ll make sure I’m on those guys. I want to make sure I’m encouraging them too. I need to make sure they are training hard and are on the right track. I also need to make sure I lead by example.”
For next year the goal is simple for Tsirtsis – repeat. But he’s going to make sure he enjoys his time as well.
“I just need to keep getting better, but also having fun. That’s going to make the goal (of repeating) a little less stressful and a little more entertaining and enjoyable.”