For some, it’s March Sadness. For Jason Tsirtsis, it was March Madness — to another dimension.
The Crown Point grad and Griffith native became the first freshman in Northwestern history to win a national title. The redshirt freshman beat Oklahoma State’s Joshua Kindig 3-1 in overtime Saturday night in Oklahoma City in the 149-pound championship during the NCAA Division I wrestling championships, shown live on ESPN.
“My face is all beat up, but I’ll take it,” Tsirtsis said by phone Sunday. “I can’t see out of my left eye and I needed three stitches in my right eye.
“It still hasn’t hit me,” Tsirtsis continued. “I guess when I get home and settle down, I will realize what I did.”
In other action, Hanover Central’s Andrew Howe came up short in the 174-pound title match, falling to top-ranked Chris Perry of Oklahoma State 4-0.
Tsirtsis (32-3) earned his place in history as he had to win three consecutive overtime matches to take home the title. He is the first Northwestern wrestler to win an NCAA championship since Jake Herbert (184 pounds) in 2009. Tsirtsis is also the school’s first-ever national champion at 149 pounds.
In the championship against Kindig (24-9), Tsirtsis held a small riding-time advantage, but the match went into overtime after a stalling warning. In OT, Tsirtsis grabbed both of Kindig’s ankles to score a two-point takedown and secure the 3-1 win.
“The goal was to win the whole thing, and I set my goals high to do well and reach my full potential,” Tsirtsis said. “If I didn’t have that attitude I don’t think I could have won three overtime matches.”
In the semifinals against top-seeded Drake Houdashelt of Missouri, Tsirtsis earned a 2-1 victory, getting the decisive point on an escape with just one second left in overtime. After the match, he had blood pouring out of a huge cut on his face during his celebration.
“Oh, my whole body is beat up pretty bad,” Tsirtsis said. “Thank goodness we are on spring break (this week). I’ll probably come home on Tuesday and just rest.”
Tsirtsis defeated Oklahoma’s Kendric Maples, the 2013 NCAA champion at 141 pounds, in the quarterfinals in a 2-1 tiebreaker decision in extra time. Maples took a 1-0 lead in the match, but Tsirtsis tied things up with a late escape in the third period, pushing Maple’s arms and freeing himself to force overtime. He hung on and wouldn’t allow an escape in the extra session to prevail.
“I had five tough competitors, with the last three being exceptionally tough,” Tsirtsis said. “I just tried to stay focused on each match and each task at hand.”
Tsirtsis, who won a Big Ten title after knocking off the top seed in Nebraska’s Jake Sueflohn and No. 2 seed Nick Dardanes of Minnesota, continued to prove the seedings mean nothing once you step on the mat. Coming into the NCAA tournament, Tsirtsis was seeded fifth.
Tsirtsis had plenty of support on his way to the title. His parents, Dawn and Marino, brothers Mike and Alex, Alex’s wife Tarin, grandfather, numerous family and friends, and even Crown Point coach Scott Vlink made the trek to Oklahoma City.
There’s already internet talk of four national titles, but Tsirtsis knows winning an NCAA championship isn’t a walk in the park.
“My focus is one more,” Tsirtsis said. “You can’t win three at a time; you can only win one (at a time).”
Hanover’s Howe, who won a national championship at 165 pounds at Wisconsin in 2010, finished 32-2 in his one season at Oklahoma. Both his losses were to Perry, who he beat Dec. 1 for Perry’s only loss of the season.
“I lost a tough match in the finals,” Howe said. “It just didn’t go my way — no other way to say it. It was hard to get things going for whatever reason.”
Howe, who is working on a master’s degree in human relations, said he hopes to be finished with his degree in December. He’s engaged to high school sweetheart, Victoria Dahlin, and said he has his sights set on the 2016 Olympics. He will continue to train at Oklahoma. As disappointed as he was Saturday night, his coach paid him the ultimate compliment.
“I’ve coached some national champions and quite a few All-Americans and Andrew Howe is the hardest worker I’ve ever been around,” Oklahoma coach Mark Cody told newsok.com “I’ve never seen anything like it. Our program will benefit for years to come having Andrew Howe.”
Elsewhere, Bucknell’s Paul Petrov, also a Hanover Central grad, advanced to the second day of the three-day event. The sophomore 125-pounder went 1-2 in the tournament and finished his impressive second season with a 31-9 mark. He earned his first career berth in the national tournament thanks to a sixth-place finish at the EIWA Championships.