Wrestlers eye ways to finish at top of NCAA

ST. LOUIS — You can’t blame the Minnesota wrestling team for not being consistent. They are, it’s just not the kind of consistency the Gophers want to live up to every year.
First there was a third-place finish at the NCAA tournament in 1997. Then second place in 1998, second place again in 1999 and third place in 2000.
Minnesota just can’t seem to put things together and bring home a first-ever national championship.
So as this year’s tournament wound down at the Kiel Center on Saturday evening, the question was asked: Will Minnesota ever win a national team title?
“I really believe it will,” said the Gophers’ Brandon Eggum. “Every year, Minnesota is developing their own tradition now. And it’s just beginning.
“Sometimes it takes awhile. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I believe that. We have great potential to win it, and next year could be our year.”
So the look-ahead to next season has begun. Minnesota returns seven starters and four All-Americans for the 2000-01 campaign.
Freshmen Jared Lawrence and Luke Becker will have another year under their belts, something sophomore Leroy Vega said will add to their motivation.
“It’s great to have two more freshmen All-Americans,” Vega said. “It will go into next year, when their goal isn’t going be an All-American. It will be becoming a national champion.”
On the downside, the Gophers will lose two All-Americans: NCAA heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, and two-time Big Ten champion at 184 pounds, Brandon Eggum.
While Lesnar’s replacement is still up in the air — redshirt freshman Garrett Lowney is on a short list of candidates — the new guy at 184 pounds is quite clear.
Damion Hahn, a three-time junior national champion and last year’s Asic High School Wrestler of the Year, will take over for Eggum.
But despite the addition of Hahn and another year of experience for Lawrence and Becker, the road won’t be any easier for the Gophers next year.
The national champion Hawkeyes return eight of their nine NCAA qualifiers, including five All-Americans.
Plus, the tournament will be held in Iowa City — giving Iowa the home-mat advantage and more incentive to hold up its seventh straight team title in front of its fans.
Perhaps a more realistic chance for Minnesota to win it all will be the 2001-02 season, when Vega is a senior, Lawrence and Becker are juniors and Hahn is a sophomore.
The tournament will be in Albany, New York, that year — a friendlier place than Carver-Hawkeyes Arena.
Either way it comes down, Minnesota coach J Robinson said the Gophers will have to wrestle with more intensity than they did in St. Louis.
“We wrestled all right,” Robinson said. “But I don’t think we wrestled great, and that’s the thing we have to go back and look for next year.
“It starts all over again today. We just have to go back at it again and work at it harder.”

Notes from the mat
ùSaturday night’s crowd of 16,795 at the Kiel Center was the second largest ever for an NCAA wrestling tournament single session.
The six-session total was a record of 96,994.

ùThe NCAA finals will be televised on ESPN2 on Thursday at noon. The broadcast, which will include Lesnar’s win over Iowa’s Wes Hand, will run until 2 p.m.

John R. Carter covers wrestling and welcomes comments at [email protected]