One Last Chance
Dec. 17, 2008
by Larry Watts
The Jake Herbert Farewell Tour starts hitting its stride this weekend, when the Northwestern University wrestling team ventures to Pennsylvania for a pair of matches in Pittsburgh. The Wildcats tangle with Pitt Friday evening and then take on Clarion Saturday.
The significance of the match Saturday is the fact it will take place at North Allegheny High School, where Herbert, now a fifth-year senior at 184 pounds, put together a prep record of 141-18, including a state championship in 2003. Since his arrival in Evanston, all he has done is compile a 125-4 record, win the national title in 2007, take national runner-up honors in 2006, win two Big Ten titles and win two Midlands Championship crowns.
"It's going to be fun to go back home one more time," says the Wexford, Pa. native. "A lot of people in Pittsburgh haven't had the opportunity to see me wrestle much outside of what has been on TV. Now they have a chance to come out and watch me in person. I've heard there may be over 200 friends and family coming out.
"My family as well as anyone who has ever coached me all the way down to pee-wee level has been my driving force. Everybody's good at something and wrestling is just something I excel in. You have to take pride in what you're doing and I want to be the absolute best in what I do. I want to reach the absolute pinnacle of our sport, which is win as many national titles as I can and get that Olympic gold."
The next stop on the tour will be the Midlands Championships back in Evanston Dec. 29-30. This is where Herbert's rise to fame began as a redshirt freshman back in 2004. Seeded No. 7 in the 174-pound division, he upset three of the top seeds en route to becoming Northwestern's first individual champion since 1974. He pulled a repeat in 2005 and enters this year's tourney looking to become the school's first three-time champion.
"Ever since I was in high school I have always wrestled in a big tournament around Christmas," Herbert says. "I kind of walked through that first Midlands. It was good to get a big win like that under my belt and show everyone I'm not just some freshman who hadn't wrestled anyone. I was the real deal and I was here to stay."
Although he took last year off from school to train for a possible berth on the 2008 Olympic team, Herbert did compete in the Midlands as a member of the New York Athletic Club. He suffered a 3-1 overtime setback to Iowa State's Jake Varner in the title bout. Not only was Herbert making the change back to folkstyle (collegiate) wrestling after competing freestyle (international) for several months, but he also had only been back on the mat for three days after recovering from a torn meniscus.
"I hadn't really trained for the Midlands, but I wanted to test my knee," he says. "I got gassed in the finals, but I accomplished everything I wanted. I got some action under my belt and made sure my knee was fine.
"I don't know if I will return to the Midlands after this year. I want to stick to freestyle wrestling as much as possible."
After a brief break, it's on to the Big Ten dual meet schedule leading up to another possible big postseason for Herbert. Although the fifth-year senior is taking a "one match at a time" attitude, he can't hide the fact he is looking forward to Ohio State and Iowa coming in for the final conference dual meets Feb. 20 and 22, respectively.
"Iowa is the defending NCAA champion and Ohio State took second," Herbert says. "The guy from Iowa (Phillip Keddy) is ranked No. 3 at 184 pounds and Ohio State's (Mike) Pucillo is the defending national champion. Half the polls have me ranked No. 1 and half have Pucillo ranked No. 1. I absolutely believe the polls that have me ranked No. 1."
Odds are Herbert and Pucillo could face each other two more times in March -- at the Big Ten Championships and the NCAA Championships. Then Herbert will pick up where he left off last summer in his Olympic quest.
"Taking that year off was amazing," he says. "I ate, drank and slept wrestling every day. The only way I wasn't going to come back to Northwestern was if I won that Olympic gold and received multimillion dollar endorsements."
Herbert posted a 1-2 record at the Olympic Trials and then headed out to Greece to compete in the World University Games, where he took the bronze medal for the second time in his career.
"I had been 2-0 against Andy Hrovat (the Olympic Trials winner) and I had also defeated the German (Davyd Bichinashvili) who took fifth in the Olympics, but it wasn't my time," Herbert says. "I was happy for Andy because he is a good friend and one of my prime workout partners.
"I still have '09, '10 and '11 to make the world team and win a world title. I just have to learn from what I did right and what I did wrong in '08. I'll keep doing it until 2012 (Summer Olympics in London). When I reach that Olympic gold medal, then it will be time to close the door on that part of my life and go on to another stage."
That next stage of his life may actually have begun. Surrounded by a young Northwestern team, the 23-year-old is also doing as much coaching as possible during workouts.
"I absolutely love the teaching end of it and it also helps you learn your position and technique better," he says. "It's real nice to show a move to a guy and then he goes out and hits that move during a match. I know what I'm talking about."
To compensate for Herbert's superior advantage in ability and knowledge in the wrestling room, the Wildcat coaching staff has devised a method to give him a solid workout.
"They gang up on me to get me tired," Herbert says with a smile. "They'll stick me out there for 15 minutes and send three or four guys at me. They keep rotating in a fresh body because they know I'll eventually get tired and have to work that much harder."
After taking the year off, the two-time Academic All-American has had little difficulty adjusting to school life again.
"It's nice to come back to that college aspect again," he says. "I feel more involved and I'm seeing people on a regular basis now that I'm back in classes. I like having that routine of being in class or at practice at certain times rather being here and there like I was during the past year."
Herbert is already off to a 10-0 start, six via pins, on the mats. He stands third on Northwestern's career win list.
"I don't want this to end," he says. "It's college, the best four to six years of your life. I'm trying to see if there's a way to start over again."