March 2, 2011

MADISON, Wis. -- When UW wrestler Andrew Howe ?pulled up? 30 seconds into his Jan. 16th bout with Illinois? Conrad Polz, there were multiple layers of anxiety ? some veiled, some not ? throughout the Field House; starting with Howe, the defending national champion at 165 pounds.

On the surface, it didn?t look good.

?I knew that something happened but I wasn?t sure what it was,? said Howe, a junior from Cedar Lake, Ind. ?I didn?t know if it was a cramp or how extreme it was; I knew something was wrong. After trying to wrestle on it again, it wasn?t a cramp. I knew it was something a little more serious.?

From his perch off the mat, UW head coach Barry Davis at first thought Howe may have damaged his shoulder. But once he realized that wasn?t the case, Davis was sure of only one thing ? the pained expression on Howe?s face. ?That was a face I hadn?t seen before,? he said.

After taking a timeout, Howe attempted to continue on what turned out to be a severe hamstring injury. When it was obvious that he couldn?t move around, the match was forfeited. ?I know the type of effort he puts into this sport and the way he trains, and yeah I was concerned,? Davis said.

Howe expressed the same concern when some of the potential scenarios were presented to him. ?Originally, I was going to be out four to six weeks,? he said. ?Then it ended up being that I might need surgery and it was going to be six to eight months recovery. That was devastating news.?

The first couple of days following the injury, Howe?s hamstring was ?really sore? and ?tight? and he knew if it stayed that way, he wouldn?t be wrestling again this season. But as soon as it started to feel better and surgery was ruled out, Howe knew that ?I was going to be ready to go? in March.

So he is, too, ready to go for this weekend?s Big Ten Championships at Welsh-Ryan Arena on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, Ill. ?I was hungry before the injury,? Howe said. ?But after sitting out and watching, I?ve got more hunger building up inside. I?m chomping at the bit.?

To what degree was the rehab an emotional roller-coaster? ?The toughest part was at the beginning when we didn?t know what was going on with having surgery or not having surgery,? Howe conceded. ?But I?ve felt great since I started working out with Jesse. There were no serious setbacks.?

Jesse is UW athletic trainer Jesse Donnenwerth, who has a wealth of experience treating injuries to wrestlers at the collegiate and Olympic levels. ?Without Jesse, I don?t think Andrew would be back right now,? Davis said. ?No, no, without Jesse, I don?t think Andrew or Trevor would be back this year.?

Trevor is senior Trevor Brandvold, who has managed to bounce back after being injured in November, though he has been limited to just 11 matches. Howe (a two-time Big Ten champion), Brandvold (who won last year at 197 pounds) and Travis Rutt (184) are all No. 1 seeds.

?It has been a tough year with injuries,? Howe acknowledged. Cole Schmitt (149) was among those sidelined. ?It seems like everything starts going well for us and then something else happens and someone else is out for a few weeks. It just really hasn?t all come together yet.?

Until maybe now. ?This will be the first time since November that we?ve had our full lineup back together,? Davis said. ?We have a veteran team and the guys are mature and understand what it?s all about. We?ve been battle-tested and worked through adversity which has made us a stronger team.?

Howe felt like he was ready to compete at a high level last week. So during a session in the wrestling room, he went 45 minutes with Travis Rutt, who has a 26-1 record at 184 pounds. Davis admittedly had some reservations about Howe taking on Rutt.

?Andrew says he wants to go with Rutt and I started sweating,? Davis said. ?I thought, ?Oh, no, can?t we give him somebody else (to start with).? He can handle anybody but Travis is big and strong.?

Why did Howe want Rutt? ?I knew it would be a test,? Howe said. ?If I could go with him, I could go with anyone in the country. I didn?t want to hold back. I wanted to jump right back into it.?

Davis tried not to focus on Howe and Rutt. He even looked away. At least, he tried to. ?I was trying not to stare,? he said. ?But I was checking them out the whole time anyway. And when they were done, it was a relief for me because it showed that all of Andrew?s hard work had paid off.?

The very next day, Howe wrestled Ben Jordan (174) for 45 minutes. ?That helped me mentally,? Howe said, ?because that?s who I was wrestling before the injury. So that let me know that I was right back where I was. I didn?t notice anything specific with my hamstring that was bothering me.?

Davis couldn?t wipe the smile off his face. ?Andrew goes back-to-back days with quality guys and didn?t miss a beat,? he said. ?The Andrew Howe that I see now is the same Andrew Howe that I saw back in October. I?ve looked. I?ve watched. And, seriously, I can?t see the difference right now.?

That bodes well for not only Howe but the Badgers who missed their team leader.

?I?m ready to compete,? Howe said Tuesday. ?I wish today was Saturday.?

Who?s the favorite to win the Big Ten meet? ?On paper, you?d probably have to go with Penn State,? Davis said. ?But I think we have just as good of a chance as anyone else. We have to wrestle above our seeds to give ourselves that chance.?

The NCAA Championships are the real prize. But this is a good starting point. Or ?starting over? point if you?re Howe and you?re returning to competition for first time since mid-January.

?The injury was almost a blessing in disguise,? Howe said. ?It gave me a little time off and I feel refreshed ? refreshed physically and mentally. I?m ready to make a run. ? I feel really good. And I?m really excited. I?ve been thinking about it (getting back) constantly. I can?t get it out of my head.?

While his hunger grows.


Mike Lucas