By Philip Hersh | Tribune reporter
Jake Herbert continues to take nothing for granted in his prolonged career as a Northwestern student-athlete.
Herbert may not have lost a college wrestling match since 2006 " and just one of 81 matches since his freshman season " but he refuses to consider himself the favorite for what would be his second straight NCAA title at 184 pounds.
And he may need just one more class to graduate in March, but that does not mean Herbert will refuse the opportunity for more.
"I will be fully enrolled, "Herbert said. "I have been lucky enough to get a free Northwestern degree, so why would I miss out on some classes?"
As he prepares for his final appearance as a collegian at the annual Midlands Wrestling Championships on Monday and Tuesday at Northwestern, it is clear Herbert, 23, has availed himself of every opportunity during a six-year stay in Evanston.
After taking a redshirt first year to adapt to college, Herbert's first major tournament was the Midlands in 2004, when he became the first NU wrestler to win an individual Midlands title in 30 years.
The next season he was named Midlands Champion of Champions and finished with a 33-1 record, his only loss in the NCAA title bout. Herbert wiped that lone blot from his record in 2006-07, when he was 32-0 and Northwestern's first NCAA champion since 1990.
Herbert left school last year to train for an Olympic bid, losing in the second round of the U.S. trials challenge tournament. The NCAA gave him an extra year of eligibility, and Herbert has opened it with 12 straight victories, seven by pin, including one that allowed the No. 20 Wildcats to beat then-No. 24 Pittsburgh by two points.
Given his experience, talent and the vacuum at 184 created when two of his leading rivals, Jake Varner of Iowa State and Tyrel Todd of Michigan, moved up in weight, it would seem the top-ranked Herbert would have little trouble becoming Northwestern's first two-time national champion since 1932.
That's not the way he sees it.
"In the NCAA tournament, you have guys who are undefeated losing in the first round, "Herbert said. "Besides, since I didn't compete in college last year, I have to deal with styles changing and new kids coming up through the ranks.
"I'm not defending a title, I'm trying to regain it."
Given Herbert's personality, that should make things more challenging for everyone he wrestles.
"Jake is very driven, "said his father, Jim. "I have to tell him more to slow down than to push him."
Jim Herbert, a contract builder, was a Pennsylvania high school state champion who went on to wrestle for Clarion University and then coach in high school for three years.
He coached Jake as a boy and remains an integral part of his son's coaching support system, even if father has not dared get on a mat with his son since his sophomore year at Northwestern.
"No one knows me better than he does, "Jake Herbert said.
Jim Herbert has missed only two matches in his son's college career, a remarkable record given winter weather conditions in Chicago and western Pennsylvania.
"It takes good planning "¦ and we haven't had any family vacations in that time, "Jim Herbert said.
The family caught a break this month when Northwestern traveled first to Pitt and then, a day later, to Herbert's old high school, North Allegheny, for a match against Clarion in which he won by tech fall as the Wildcats romped 29-3.
It was the first time Herbert had wrestled a collegiate match in his native western Pennsylvania.
Herbert hopes to stay in the Chicago area after graduation. He is looking for a job as a graduate assistant coach to support himself while training for the 2012 Olympics.
On the international scene, Herbert is still far from the top " No. 9 in the U.S. at 184. But nearly all those above him are older, and it takes most wrestlers some time to make the switch from collegiate "folk-style "wrestling to international freestyle wrestling.
For now, though, Herbert's focus is close to home " the mats at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where 350 of the country's top wrestlers will be competing in Midlands and he will be after a third title.
"Midlands is like a mini-NCAAs, "Herbert said. "It lets you know where you stand at almost the middle of the season."