Big Ten title is first step for wrestlers

by Sarah Mitchell

Five years ago, the Gophers wrestling program received a sign that their run at the top was only a few seasons away. Minnesota’s newest grapplers that season were recognized as the best incoming class in the nation.
Now in its final season, the program’s foundation, one that set a school record by leading Minnesota to a runner-up finish at last year’s national tournament, has two more objectives to fulfill — a Big Ten title and a national title.
The 2nd-ranked Gophers (18-2 overall, 8-0 in the Big Ten) hope to wrap up the league title this weekend in Ann Arbor, Mich., competing for their fifth conference crown and their first since 1959.
“We kind of got things started,” said co-captain Tim Hartung of his class. “They have had some good teams in the past, but none of them have had good finishes. We’re destined to go out on a winning note.”
In trying to break a 25-year Big Ten tournament win streak by No. 3 Iowa and finish off the season without a loss to a Big Ten opponent, Minnesota enters the tournament with wrestlers seeded in nine of the 10 weight classes.
Four grapplers — 157-pound Chad Kraft, 184-pound Brandon Eggum, 197-pound Tim Hartung and heavyweight Brock Lesnar — earned top seeds, while two Gophers — 125-pound Leroy Vega, 149-pound Troy Marr and 165-pound Josh Holiday — were recognized as second seeds.
Senior Bart Goyler (133) and freshman Chad Erikson (141) trail behind their teammates, clinging to sixth seeds.
“We haven’t peaked yet, we just want to have 10 guys qualify for the national tournament,” Gophers assistant coach Joe Russell said. “There isn’t too much we can do to train anymore but try and stay in shape.”
Minnesota only missed the pre-seeds at the 174-pound weight class, which is the strongest in the Big Ten. Gophers 174-pounder Delaney Berger will enter the tournament as a wild card.
The junior has moved in and out of Minnesota’s starting line-up this season after suffering a shoulder injury at the Great Plains Open in early Jan. The Big Ten tournament is Berger’s first mat experience since he aggravated the injury on Feb. 7 against Ohio State.
“I’m just happy to participate and do my part,” Berger said. “Coming into the season, I expected to go into the tournament at the top of the Big Ten. It’s not that way now, but the way I see it, somebody’s going to get a tough draw.”
But more than individual Big Ten concerns, the team is looking to qualify all 10 starters for the NCAA tournament on March 18-20 in State College, Penn. The top seven finishers in each weight class advance.
“It’s a fresh start and guys have to realize that,” Russell said. “Since November they’ve been jockeying for seeds. Now it means nothing.”
With the regular season behind them, the Gophers starters — five of which are seniors — head to Michigan feeling an urgent need to win. By accomplishing this, Minnesota’s senior class could add another highlight to its record-breaking season, becoming the team to spoil the Hawkeyes’ quarter-of-a-century reign.
“Getting your emotion involved is real important,” Berger said. “We’re the new kids on the block, to put it simply.”