With the start of 2017-18 Nebraska wrestling season just around the corner, senior Colton McCrystal and junior Tyler Berger find themselves in a much different position than they are used to.
Last season, McCrystal and Berger were two young-guns amidst a starting lineup filled with six seniors, over half of the starters.
The two wrestlers stayed out of the spotlight and in the background, learning from the senior leaders before them.
Now, McCrystal and Berger’s role has flipped.
They’re the captains now on a Huskers’ squad where freshmen and sophomores make up over two-thirds of the roster.
“We’re trying to take what we’ve learned from those older guys and help these freshman grow and help us to step in and be completive right off the bat,” Berger said. “Which is tough.”
McCrystal and Berger are faced with the task to be like the former teammates they once looked up to.
Names like Robert Kokesh, a three-time All-American, Eric Montoya, a two-time All-American, and Austin Wilson, a Hastings native who earned All-America honors in his final season at Nebraska after coming up short his first three tries.
Berger said he still talks to Montoya every week, learning from him and asking different questions.
Prior to the start of practice a few weeks ago, Berger said he had a discussion with head coach Mark Manning and assistant coach Bryan Snyder about how he can go about being a leader on the team.
“It comes with a lot of different responsibilities that before I never had to worry about,” Berger said.
Those responsibilities include helping teammates cut weight, keeping up on grades and getting prepared mentally before competition.
“There’s going to be some nerves and figuring out just college life,” Berger said. “That’s what I’m here for.”
McCrystal admits this is a different role than he is used to, but he’s taking on as much as he can.
“I’m not much of a vocal guy,” McCrystal said. “I like to just lead by example. So I’m trying to change that too. Lead by example, but also get on guys if they need it, boost ‘em up. I’m learning as much as everyone else.”
McCrystal and Berger had similar, but also different experiences when it came to the start of their collegiate wrestling careers.
McCrystal was put into the starting lineup from the get-go his freshman year in 2013-14. He finished the year with a 16-15 record and went 0-2 at the Big Ten Championships.
The next year, McCrystal used his redshirt in hopes of gaining more knowledge and experience. During his sophomore season, he appeared in just three dual matches, but won all three.
McCrystal finally returned to the starting lineup last season and posted an impressive 34-11 record, placing third at the Big Ten Championships and advancing to the Round of 12 at the NCAA’s.
In his final season wearing a Nebraska singlet, McCrystal knows that as a senior leader, he needs to do his part and earn that coveted All-American status.
“My last opportunity to do it,” McCrystal said. “So I need to put in as much as I can. And if I bring back hardware, that will give the team the best opportunity to do so also.”
As for Berger, he redshirted right away during the 2014-15 season. As a redshirt freshman he started the season 17-5 before losing five matches in a row near the end of the dual season.
After placing seventh at the Big Ten Championship, Berger lost in the Round of 12.
Berger learned a lot from that season two years ago and hopes he can use his knowledge to help out the young guys currently on the team.
“(It’s) taking care of the little things in every area,” Berger said. “So, you’re academics, you’re social life, wrestling diet, sleep. All these different things combined together to make you a great wrestler. If wrestling’s the biggest thing in your life, I think that kind of takes away from your ability.”
Although Berger earned All-America honors last year during his sophomore season, he admits to being so obsessed toward reaching that goal that he lost a lot of the joy he usually has when competing in the sport.
“If wrestling’s the biggest thing in your life, I think that kind of takes away from your ability,” Berger said.
McCrystal’s advice to the young wrestlers on the team is “don’t wait,” something that he was told early in his career, too.
“Don’t wait ‘till you’re a junior or senior in the lineup. Do it now. If they ‘let it rip,’ they can do that. They can be an All-American this year,” McCrystal said.
Coach Manning said McCrystal and Berger are the “most important” aspect toward the Huskers being successful this season.
“They’re just both really mature guys,” Manning said. “They’re veterans. They’ve been through it. They’ve been to the NCAA tournament, they know what it takes to get it done.”
McCrystal and Berger aren’t shying away from the responsibilities and expectations that are in front of them for the upcoming season. They know their role has changed. They know they are leaders.
“I love it,” Berger said. “I absolutely love it.”