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For Eric Barone, this season was all about “three days in March.”
Any time the Illinois wrestler suffered a tough loss, he reminded himself: “All that matters is three days in March.”
Barone earned the right to compete during those three days in March – the NCAA Championships, which were supposed to be March 19-21 in Minneapolis – by finishing fourth in the 157-pound bracket at the Big Ten Championships. Barone (15-13) knew his record wasn’t good enough for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, and he knocked off two top-10-ranked wrestlers during the Big Ten tournament on his way to an automatic bid.
After all that, his three days in March abruptly were taken away.
Barone was among three McHenry County wrestlers who qualified for the NCAA Championships, which were canceled last week, along with all other remaining NCAA winter and spring sports.
The unprecedented turn of events because of the COVID-19 pandemic left the three local NCAA qualifiers – each in his final year of eligibility – wondering if this is the end. Barone, a redshirt senior from Crystal Lake South, Illini teammate Travis Piotrowski, a senior from Prairie Ridge, and Purdue’s Christian Brunner, a senior from Dundee-Crown, all likely have wrestled their last college matches.
Shaw Media Illinois spoke with Barone and Piotrowski. Purdue declined to make Brunner available, stating that the school is not making any student-athletes available for interviews at this time.
“A lot of disappointment in the way it ended,” Barone said. “I’m also kind of sad that I wasn’t able to give the proper ending to my coaches and my parents, everyone that has supported me ever since I was in elementary school doing this. They’ve put in equally the amount of time and effort that I have.”
Piotrowski still is holding out hope that the NCAA might grant another year of eligibility to winter sports athletes. The NCAA said in a statement that spring sports athletes, who barely had started their seasons, likely would have an extra year of eligibility. Winter sports athletes might not be so lucky.
“It still doesn’t even feel real that this is actually happening,” Piotrowski said. “Like, it’s over. … As of right now, I’m trying to stay as positive as I can for that happening [being granted another year of eligibility].”
Piotrowski, whose brother, Trey, is a freshman Illini wrestler, said he plans to stay on campus next year either way to work on his master’s degree. He already has a degree in advertising and is working on a second undergraduate degree in consumer economics and finance. If he’s not wrestling, he will serve as a volunteer assistant coach.
Barone, however, knows his college career is over. The fifth-year senior earned his accounting degree last year and is on track to finish his master’s in May. He already has accepted a job with Deloitte, which he will start in July.
“For me, it’s definitely over,” said Barone, who won Crystal Lake South’s first wrestling state title in 2015. “It’s kind of weird that it ended the way it did. I’ve just got to be grateful that I had a chance to wrestle in the Big Ten Conference.”
Barone and Piotrowski both grew up wrestling at Wolves Wrestling Club in Crystal Lake. Barone said their families were always hanging out whenever they visited campus for a dual.
Piotrowski, who was 27-4 and finished fifth in the Big Ten at 133, started this season thinking he would redshirt. He was bumping up a weight class from 125 to 133 and wasn’t sure if his body would be ready for the season.
After an encouraging performance at the MSU Open at Michigan State in early November, where he finished third, Piotrowski and his coaches decided he didn’t need the extra year to adjust to 133. NCAA wrestlers can compete in certain open tournaments without burning a redshirt season.
Piotrowski said the early-season tournament gave him a lot of confidence. His 27 wins were a career high. He had earned the No. 7 seed at 133 in the NCAA Championships.
“Me and Barone, especially, we both felt like we had really good Big Ten tournaments,” said Piotrowski, who was an IHSA state champion in 2016. “We’re going to nationals, left off on a good note, ready for everything. It just couldn’t happen.”
For Brunner (25-6), this likely signals the end of his Purdue career as well. He had earned the No. 6 seed at 197 at the NCAA Championships. He was sixth at the Big Ten Championships. Brunner won a state title for D-C in 2016.