Hoosiers ready to make new memories at Wilkinson Hall

The closing of University Gym had Angel Escobedo feeling slightly sentimental.

The U-Gym, of course, was where Escobedo competed for Indiana a decade ago, the place where he built himself into one of the most decorated wrestlers in program history. The dingy old building had its warts, but it had its moments, too.

In recent days — the final days of competition inside the 2,000-seat gym — Escobedo held his memories close. The first-year IU coach also looked into the future with eager anticipation, recognizing what a new venue will do for his wrestling program in the years to come.

On Wednesday, as Escobedo walked the corridors of Wilkinson Hall, Indiana’s $17 million multipurpose arena, the new building already started to tug at his heart. What used to be a parking lot at the corner of 17th Street and Fee Lane is now the canvas on which Escobedo hopes to paint a new set of special moments.

And he can’t wait to get started.

“Just being in there, I told my wrestlers, ‘Man, I wish I could compete again,'” Escobedo said. “It’s a great atmosphere. The crowds are going to be great. As much as I’ll miss U-Gym, this is a great place for Indiana wrestling to continue its tradition.”

The doors to Wilkinson Hall will open for the first time (Sunday), when Indiana hosts Maryland for a 2 p.m. match. The 3,000-seat arena has been years in the making, giving Escobedo’s wrestling program — and its shared tenant, the IU volleyball program — a new centrally-located home on the athletics campus.

Indiana’s wrestling team has long practiced in a room located just a few steps off the main event floor at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, and the two-mile separation between Assembly Hall and University Gym fed a feeling of disconnection for the program

They practiced at one place and competed in another. That arrangement won’t change with the opening of Wilkinson Hall, but IU wrestlers can now enjoy a sense of place as they join the vast majority of Hoosier athletes who also practice and compete in facilities built inside the athletics campus.

“The guys are going to be able to feel more at home and not have to jump in their car and drive over,” Escobedo said. “They can just walk right over. That’s a level of comfort that they’re going to get. It was kind of hard when you practice and then you drive. You don’t really feel like you’re at home. This is a really big thing for our wrestlers.

“From a fans perspective, it’s a building that everybody is going to build together. That’s going to be great. We’re trying to build this fan base. We’re trying to build this new tradition where we sell out Wilkinson Hall every weekend. For our fans to have that opportunity, I think it’s something that’s very unique.”

Such dedicated support must be earned, and Escobedo recognizes that is part of his challenge as he guides the Hoosiers through the years to come.

In replacing former coach Duane Goldman, who announced his retirement last April after 26 years in charge, Escobedo is striving elevate IU’s standing inside college wrestling’s toughest conference.

Indiana hasn’t finished inside the top 10 at the Big Ten Championships since 2010, Escobedo’s senior year, when the Hoosiers tied for eighth. Escobedo, who won a NCAA title at 125 pounds in 2008, is the only four-time All-American in IU history, a Gary native aiming to recruit a new era of in-state wrestlers to Bloomington.

Having a shiny new venue helps in that pursuit.

“When I was recruited, it kind of set the tone a little bit,” Escobedo said. “Come here and do something that’s never been done, as far as a guy staying in-state and becoming an All-American and national champion. That was the pitch for me.

“Now, moving forward with Wilkinson Hall, my pitch to other athletes is we’re trying to put Indiana on top of the map, nationally. A top 10 program. Top five program. National championship program. When you look at Wilkinson Hall, you see a building that competes with everyone else in the country, facility-wise. That’s the standard right there.”

In recent weeks, Indiana has begun to take small steps forward.

The Hoosiers closed December at the South Beach Duals, where they saw four ranked opponents — No. 12 North Carolina, No. 8 Cornell, No. 7 NC State and No. 20 North Dakota State — and defeated one. The Dec. 29 win over North Carolina was only IU’s second over a ranked opponent since December of 2015. It was also IU’s first top-15 win since February of 2008.

“Our seniors, who have been competing for four years, have never seen a win like that in their whole career,” Escobedo said. “For them to put in that time and effort into the program and to be able to achieve that was something great to see. They were excited. They’re seeing their hard work pay off. I think now it’s like, OK, we did that. We jumped over that hump of beating a nationally-ranked opponent. Now let’s see how far we can take this.”

Naturally, there’s still more to be done.

Indiana is 3-7 on the season and remains winless in the Big Ten after No. 2 Ohio State powered its way to a 43-3 victory Friday in the final match at University Gym. Half of Friday’s matches ended with Buckeye pins.

IU’s only points came from senior Bryce Martin, who produced a 3-0 decision over Ohio State’s Kaleb Romero.

Against Maryland, which dropped its Big Ten opener at Purdue on Friday, Indiana has an opportunity to open its new building with a win.

And start to create new memories in the process.

6 comments

  1. Yet another example of IU’s push toward excellence across the board on Athletics under the leadership of Fred Glass. Yes, as with any high profile job, he’s had his share of hiccups. But his overall body of work in just over a decade has been nothing but outstanding. To my admittedly limited knowledge, he overseen facilities improvements for nearly if not every one of IU’s sports programs. He has made several outstanding coaching hires. The myopic football and basketball naysayers seem to take every opportunity they get to toss Glass under the bus. It’s sad, because he undeniably has overseen more positive change in a decade than any of his predecessors in IU Athletics history.

  2. Most of the football and basketball changes were actually started under Greenspan. The football stadium is awesome especially at 30% of capacity in 2nd half’s of games. The most awesome was the PSU game when it was windy and garbage was flying around. Myopic-Love it.

    1. Some basketball and football facilities changes were planned/started before Oct. 2008(Glass hired). So much more finished and initiated under the leadership of AD Glass. Like the golf course which has been 4th rate for decades is getting a significant makeover and modernization. I don’t know how you can blame weather on anyone. I was there for the PSU game. I couldn’t stop it.

  3. IU won’t be building a retractable roof football stadium any day soon. Hmm, no one else in college football has one either…

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