Wrestlers look to loosen Iowa’s title grip

Allison Younge

It’s been 39 years since Minnesota’s wrestling team has won a Big Ten championship. Since then, the Gophers have come close, but have never captured the first-place honor.
The Big Ten title has been rooted in Iowa for 24 straight years. While breaking this string could require a near-perfect team performance, Gophers coach J Robinson said he thinks the big prize is finally within reach this weekend in State College, Pa.
Minnesota’s line-up appears solid at every weight, and with nine returning starters set to compete, all of the pieces appear to be in place.
In addition to the Gophers’ experience, leadership and talent, Robinson said this year’s team possesses another important quality.
“These guys are very good when they get on a roll,” Robinson said. “They’ve got great chemistry. When one does well, it motivates the others to do even better. Even though they take care of themselves as far as their own wrestling, when they step on the mat, they are there for each other mentally, and that’s really critical for this tournament.”

118 pounds: Olympic silver medalist Brandon Paulson enters the Big Ten tournament fresh, as he is straight out of retirement.
Returning to the Gophers lineup after an eight month leave of absence, Paulson appears determined to help the Gophers win a Big Ten title. But will his focused mindset be strong enough to overcome the lost months of training, and carry him through his vital initial rounds?
Robinson thinks so, holding faith that a three-year starting veteran doesn’t just surrender his wrestling talents after retirement, especially since Paulson has been back on the Gophers practice mat for the last six weeks.
“It depends on where he gets drawn in and what happens,” Robinson said. “I think it will be very positive. He can really influence the team by getting them going right away. If he starts off with a win, that’s going to make a big difference.”
While not seeded among the tournament’s top six 118 pounders, with his experience and credentials, Paulson has a valid chance of upsetting the conference leaders — most of all because he has nothing to lose.

126 pounds: Since earning the official starting nod at 126 pounds during the middle of the Big Ten season, junior Bart Golyer has consistently proven that records and rankings are useless ammunition on the mat.
While still unranked in the Big Ten, Golyer upset Michigan State’s fifth seeded Pat McNamara at the Sports Pavilion on Feb. 13, by pinning him in the second period. This weekend, Golyer will be provided with an opportunity to unleash two weeks of penned up intensity on his Big Ten opponents.
In addition to his pre-match momentum, Golyer possesses another important tournament advantage.
“The good thing about Bart is that he is one of the best conditioned guys on this team,” assistant coach Marty Morgan said. “Long tournaments will actually be a benefit to him. After the first round he will get stronger, after the second round even stronger, and by the third round he’ll be even stronger.”

134 pounds: With Iowa’s returning NCAA and Big Ten champion Mark Ironside pacing the 134-pound weight class, conference contenders will need every ounce of confidence and ability to compete.
Gophers junior Troy Marr is pre-seeded fifth in the Big Ten, and will look for an upset this weekend. Marr earned a 5-3 mark in the conference this season wrestling the third match for the Gophers.
This weekend, he will compete in his second conference tournament. Last season, Marr earned a trip to the NCAA tournament by finishing fifth at Big Tens.

142 pounds: This weight class could prove to be the most competitive in the Big Ten tournament. While Minnesota’s aggressive senior 142-pounder Jason Davids will take the conference mat for a final time, he is likely to share the final spotlight with Iowa senior Jeff McGinness.
In their two encounters this season, they’ve split — each losing at home. If the tournament goes as expected, Penn State will offer a neutral sight for the series tie-breaker. While Davids and McGinness would be the likely candidates in the running to capture the coveted title this year, Penn State’s true freshman Jamarr Billman could prove to be the 142-pound spoiler.
Billman defeated Davids in the Gophers’ dual against Penn State on Feb. 6 by a score of 9-3. The loss could turn out to be pivotal for Davids in the postseason. Noting his intensified work ethic, Robinson thinks that the Gophers’ senior is up to the task.
“I think he’s been working harder this last month and is physically and mentally prepared,” the coach said. “There is no one in this tournament that he can’t beat.”

150 pounds: Gophers junior Chad Kraft’s focus and ability should be tested at every stop this weekend. Of the nation’s top 20 wrestlers at this weight class, nine are from the Big Ten.
Kraft’s 6-1 dual meet record in the conference sets him among the best of the best. After sitting out the first part of the season because of a knee injury, Kraft strung together 14 consecutive wins before suffering his only loss of the season to Penn State’s Clint Musser.
Already a two-time All-American, this weekend Kraft hopes to add the title “Big Ten champion” to his list of wrestling credentials. Along with Davids and Tim Hartung, Kraft’s experience has anchored the Gophers throughout the season.
“They’re the heart of this team,” Robinson said. “These are the guys that have been there before. They will be expected to lead the team and get the guys going.”

158 pounds: Seeded No. 1 and expected to pack a Big Ten title in his luggage on his way home is Gophers’ 158-pound junior Josh Holiday.
“We’re planning on him winning the title at that weight,” assistant coach Joe Russell said. “It’s going to be a really close team race. Every point is going to matter, and he needs to come through. We are definitely counting on him.”
Holiday is confident he can meet this high expectation along with his own.
“I think I’m going to win it,” Holiday said. “I’ve wrestled most of the guys, four of the top five, and have beaten all of them. I think I have the advantage in my weight class.”
When considering the tournament, Holiday said that in addition to winning a Big Ten title, he would like a rematch with Ohio State’s Dan DiCesare — the opponent who defeated him in double overtime on Feb. 8, accounting for Holiday’s only Big Ten loss this season.

167 pounds: With Iowa’s two-time returning national champion Joe Williams as the top seed, the 167-pound weight class appears solidly anchored by the Hawkeyes.
Gophers sixth-year senior Zac Taylor will likely meet him in the tournament quarterfinals. While Taylor has been defeated by Williams two times this season, the matches have been close.
On Jan. 23, in the Gophers’ home match against Iowa, it was evident that Taylor tired Williams out by the end of regulation, but the top-ranked Hawkeye eked out a 6-5 decision victory to remain on top of the series and the Big Ten.
Taylor has already met all of his pre-seeded opponents in dual meets this season. He was downed by Williams, Wisconsin’s Kole Clauson and Penn State’s Glen Pritzlaff, but defeated Michigan’s Jeff Catrabone and Northwestern’s Mark Bybee in the final two weeks of the Gophers’ dual meet season.
The three losses gave evidence of a mid-season slump, but since then Taylor has bounced back to reclaim his reputation as Minnesota’s tough guy — maybe just in time.
“He had a little slump, but he broke out of it and now he’s ready to go,” Morgan said. “This could prove to be his best year ever.”

177 pounds: Preparing to take the mat for the first time since suffering a knee injury in the Gophers’ match against Penn State on Feb. 6, sophomore Brandon Eggum returns with a valid chance of claiming his first Big Ten title.
Although he missed the Gophers’ five final dual meets, Eggum has fully recovered and should be fresh for the grueling tournament. During his recovery time, without the full use of his knee, Eggum concentrated on increasing his upper body strength.
“If you look at him right now, he looks like a body builder, just huge and strong,” Morgan said.
Although Eggum is competing in only his second Big Ten tournament, the assistant coach thinks he has all of the necessary qualities of a Big Ten champion.
“He was a top blue-chip athlete out of high school, and there is no reason why he can’t be a Big Ten champion this year,” Morgan said. “It’s just a matter of him deciding whether he wants to do it or not.”

190 pounds: Minnesota’s pin specialist, Tim Hartung, hopes to achieve a repeat of last year, when he won a title in Minneapolis. Hartung is the top seed at 190 pounds, but shares the tournament limelight with Iowa’s returning national champion Lee Fullhart.
While four other wrestlers speckle the top seeds, a Hartung-Fullhart match-up seems inevitable for the 190-pound final. The rivals split their two dual meet matches earlier this season, with Fullhart winning a 4-3 overtime decision at the National Duals on Jan. 18. Hartung avenged the loss just five days later in the Gophers’ home dual against Iowa, claiming a 6-1 decision.
Confident in his ability to prevail in the rubber match, Hartung is prepared to counter Fullhart’s every move.
“I just want to go out there and prove that I can consistently beat him,” Hartung said. “He might think that it’s his turn to win again, but I’m going to go out there and prove that he’s not going to beat me.”

Heavyweight: Nicknamed “Prime Time” for his ability to perform under pressure, Gophers heavyweight Shelton Benjamin is the No. 1-seeded big man at this year’s conference tournament.
While only competing in his second Big Ten tournament since transferring from Lassen Community College two years ago, Benjamin has quickly made a name for himself among the Division I wrestling ranks.
After he earned All-American honors last season, the Gophers will count on the crowd-pleasing heavyweight to score some big points for the team.
“Prime Time — that’s exactly what this is,” Morgan said. “During the next two tournaments (Big Tens and nationals) he’s got to put on a show for everyone. This is his last chance for fame and glory in the college ranks, so he’s got to take care of business.”