U wrestlers take third at Big Tens

by Allison Younge

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The spotlight, quite literally, was on Gophers junior Tim Hartung in the finals of the 1998 Big Ten wrestling championships. Blinding white lights illuminated center-stage at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center as Hartung, Minnesota’s returning conference title-holder and Iowa’s defending national champion battled for this year’s conference bragging rights.
A 1-1 tie after three periods sent the bout into sudden-death overtime. Sixteen-seconds later Hartung’s arm was again raised in victory as the Gophers’ 190-pounder was crowned with his second conference title.
“I wasn’t quite as dominating as I wanted to be,” Hartung said. “I wanted to win bigger, but he’s a battler. He’s last year’s national champ so maybe I expected too much out of myself, but I’m happy to win.”
But even with a Big Ten title in hand, Hartung’s victory was bittersweet. A third-place team finish was less than what the Gophers expected this weekend.
“It’s a big-time disappointment. We keep saying, Next time, next time,'” Hartung said. “There comes a point when you’ve just got to do it, and we haven’t been getting it done.”
Iowa won its 25th straight Big Ten championship with 132.5 team points. Penn State followed with 120.5, and Minnesota claimed third with 107.
While Hartung, Jason Davids (142 pounds) and Shelton Benjamin (heavyweight) earned matches in the finals, the rest of the Gophers fell short, most losing to higher-seeded competitors.
“The matches that we lost, if you look at them, were the matches we should have lost,” Gophers coach J Robinson said. “In order to win this tournament, we needed to wrestle above where we were seeded.”
After a 19-2 regular-season, the Gophers were confident in their ability to win a Big Ten title, break Iowa’s 24-year dynasty and qualify all 10 wrestlers for the national tournament.
As the first day of the tournament progressed, however, Minnesota’s title hopes faded when six wrestlers were sent into the consolation bracket.
The Gophers’ No. 1-seeded Josh Holiday was dished the biggest upset of the tournament at 158 pounds. Holiday lost his first match to Ohio State’s Dan DiCesare 4-3, but came back to finish third.
Two-time All-American Chad Kraft was also downed in the semifinals, but came back to claim his second third-place finish at Big Tens.
While both wrestlers lost only one match in the tournament, both middleweights were less than satisfied with their performances.
Holiday said that accepting his position at third would be difficult.
“It’s going to be depressing to stand on the winner’s podium looking up seeing those two guys standing ahead of me,” Holiday said. “That’s the last thing I wanted to do, especially when they’re guys I know I can beat.”
Former Olympian Brandon Paulson won three matches, including a pin, on the weekend to place seventh and qualify for NCAAs. While losing en route to the championship, Paulson was satisfied with his first official matches this season.
“It was a good warm-up. I was coming into the Big Ten tournament and wrestling some tough guys,” Paulson said. “My offense was a little slow, but I started to come on. I’m confident now. By the time nationals come, my offense will be there.”
That’s the approach most of the Gophers will need to take if they are going to meet their expectations at the NCAA Championships in Cleveland, Ohio. With nine wrestlers set to compete in two weeks, Minnesota is confident in its ability to bounce back.
“In the past, I’ve found a way to win, and that’s what I’ve got to do (at nationals),” Kraft said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s my last shot, and it’s the shot that counts.”