Wrestlers try to salvage season

Scott Bradley

At the beginning of the wrestling season, Gophers coach J Robinson strongly believed his young team could claim fame at the NCAA tournament, in March at Target Center.
Then the team lost juniors Brandon Paulson and Zac Taylor when they opted to sit out the season to train for the Olympics. But the biggest setback for the team occurred about one month ago when senior heavyweight Billy Pierce injured his right knee in a match against Illinois.
“Part of life is patience,” Robinson said. “And that’s the problem. Everybody wants it now. We couldn’t control what happened to Billy or losing Brandon and Zac to the Olympics. So there’s no sense in getting bummed out about it.”
What began as a season of promise and high hopes has turned into a season of rebuilding. Pierce, a two-time All-American from Minneapolis, is Minnesota’s lone senior this year, and his absence has hit the team hard.
“It’s disappointing,” Robinson said. “But in three or four years, it’s not important. The thing for us to do is to not lose sight or get all bummed out.”
The No. 8 Gophers (9-7-1, 1-4 in the Big Ten) will be without Pierce again this Saturday when they face No. 4 Michigan State at Williams Arena. Minnesota concludes its dual-meet season Sunday afternoon at No. 19 Ohio State.
Although it would be a fitting end to an outstanding career, Pierce will not wrestle before the home fans in his final home dual meet. Pierce said he does not want to risk further injury heading into the Big Ten tournament.
“It is a little disappointing,” he said. “I’m trying to keep things in perspective right now. Winning nationals is a lot more important than wrestling this weekend.”
Although losing five straight dual meets is not pleasing to Robinson, he said it won’t kill the team going into the tournaments.
“We’re so young that we can’t afford to have anyone out,” Robinson said. “That’s what I said at the beginning. So many matches have come down to Billy being in the lineup. And that’s the match that makes the difference.”
Of the four dual meets Pierce has missed since injuring his knee in a match late last month, three have been decided by the heavyweight contest. Junior Gerald Carr, who wrestles at 167 pounds, said the team came to rely on Pierce winning his matches.
When Pierce stepped out of the starting lineup, he held the nation’s top ranking. Freshman Josh Dodd, who was given the difficult task of replacing Pierce, has not won a match yet this season.
“It’s been a frustrating and disappointing season for us,” Robinson said. “We could have peaked this year. But Billy gets hurt and we lose a couple more to the Olympics. So now, rather than being 9-7, you’re 15-1.”
As the Gophers continue to take their share of losses, Robinson believes there are four or five athletes who can score points at this year’s Big Ten tournament. Athletes who place in the top six at Big Tens automatically qualify for nationals.
Sophomore Jason Davids (142), freshman Chad Kraft (150), Carr (167) and freshman Tim Hartung (177) have been consistent wrestlers this year. Collectively, those athletes hold an 83-23 record.
That’s not bad considering how strong the Big Ten is this year with every team ranked in the nation’s top-25.
“Those are the guys who will score the most points at Big Tens,” Robinson said.
In the meantime, Robinson is hoping his team can wrestle well against the Spartans.
And like many of Minnesota’s previous conference opponents, Michigan State is strong where the Gophers are not — in the lightweights. Three of the Spartans’ four starters are ranked in the top 15.
Robinson said this weekend’s dual meets are important for the Gophers to build momentum heading into the tournament.
“If it isn’t done at the Big Ten (meet),” Robinson said, “it’s a long wait until next year.”