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Bringing it home

THE OPEN MAT HAS LAUNCHED CHECK US OUT

Pa. native returns to seek third conference title for Wildcats

By: Guy Cipriano (Original here)

Let’s get two things out of the way regarding Northwestern senior Jake Herbert.

Yes, Penn State recruited the former North Allegheny standout.

No, the school never made his final list. “In the end, what it came down to was that I wanted to get out of Pennsylvania,” Herbert said. “I wanted to experience something else.”

So Herbert headed to Evanston, Ill., the college hamlet near Chicago, and the rest can be considered wrestling history.

Herbert will attempt to win his third Big Ten title this weekend at the Bryce Jordan Center, the gleaming arena on the campus he could have called home.

Herbert has no regrets about his decision. He won a NCAA title in 2007, traveled the world during an Olympic redshirt season in 2008 and many believe he will cap his career by adding another 184-pound crown in two weeks.

“You could say it has worked out pretty well,” Herbert said earlier this week. “I love Chicago.”

Herbert, a 2003 PIAA champion, has fond feelings for Pennsylvania, too. And this weekend’s tournament, which begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, will serve as a family reunion.

Herbert’s mother, Kelly Herbert, formerly Hogue, grew up in Lewistown. Herbert still has relatives in Mifflin County, and the family will make the westward trek on Route 322 for the championships.

Penn State is also a convenient site for the other half of Herbert’s family, many of whom still live in Wexford. Herbert’s father, Jim, won a state title at North Allegheny in 1974.

“It works out beautiful for both sides,” The Herberts and Hogues will see the waning stages of a spectacular career.

Herbert has dominated the 184-pound weight class since losing to Missouri’s Ben Askren in the 2006 NCAA 174-pound final. He went 32-0 in 2007 before meeting and defeating many of the world’s top freestyle wrestlers last year. Herbert’s bid to earn a spot on the United States Olympic team fell short, but he received a preview of what life after collegiate wrestling should resemble.

Herbert will graduate with a communications degree later this spring. But he will likely remain in suburban Chicago, where he’s heavily involved with the Overtime School of Wrestling.

“Last year was fun,” said Herbert, who brings a 56-bout winning streak into this weekend. “It’s basically what I want to do with my life the next two or three years.

Freestyle wrestling fits the offensive-minded Herbert’s personality. A 26-0 season should include few frustrations, but the lack of aggression showed by recent opponents peeves Herbert.

“We knew two years ago guys weren’t putting it on the line against him,” Northwestern coach Tim Cysewski said. “They were going to try to keep it close because keeping it close with Jake is a moral victory for some wrestlers. We told Jake guys were going to play games against him. That’s the way it has been forever and it’s going to continue forever.”

Penn State’s Phil Davis, an NCAA champion last year who Herbert trained with as a teenager, experienced the same situation last season. Situations such as last month’s 3-2 victory over Iowa’s Phil Keddy, the nation’s third-ranked 184-pounder, are something Herbert has reluctantly learned to live with.

“It looks like at a close match, but at no point was that ever a close match,” Herbert said. “He stood around and I played into his game. He was content losing 3-2.” At least Keddy faced Herbert.

Maybe the season’s most frustrating moment came on Feb. 20, when Ohio State coach Tom Ryan bumped Mike Pucillo to 197 pounds to help the Buckeyes secure a dual meet win. Pucillo won last year’s NCAA 184-pound title in Herbert’s absence.

Ryan’s move created a stir among college wrestling fans. But Herbert and Pucillo could meet during Sunday’s finals. Herbert and Pucillo are the top two seeds. They will also likely be the top seeds at the NCAA Championships.

“I just have to make sure I go into this tournament, get the job done and get my hand raised,” said Herbert, the No. 1 seed.

Herbert’s hand has been lifted enough to raise Northwestern’s wrestling profile. Cysewski said a 94-1 record over the last three years and Herbert’s affable personality help him receive attention on the 8,200- student campus.

“Everybody on campus knows who he is,” Cysewski said. “People like to be around him. He doesn’t brag. He puts pressure on himself and stays motivated. Winning another Big Ten Championships and NCAAs would put him in the record books as one of the best wrestlers we have ever produced. He’s potentially the best wrestler we have ever produced.”

Not a bad way for Herbert to end a sojourn from his Pennsylvania roots.

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