Correction: This article incorrectly stated how many national championships the team won prior to 2003. They won two, in 2001 and 2002.
Coming off a pair of national championships in 2001 and 2002, the Gophers wrestling coaches rounded up the top recruiting class in the country in 2003.
Six of the wrestlers in this class alone combined for 17 high school state championships.
Included with this group was Roger Kish, hailed as the nation’s top recruit after winning four Michigan state championships. There was also Mack Reiter, a skinny kid with a southern drawl who sent shockwaves through wrestling circles when he became the first blue-chip Iowa wrestler to ever leave the state for Minnesota.
Now, five years later, that class of seniors will dress for the final college dual-meet of their lives Sunday afternoon, when they wrestle fifth-ranked Ohio State (19-3, 7-1 Big Ten).
The meet will be at 2 p.m. at Williams Arena, where the No. 6 Gophers (13-7, 4-3 Big Ten) have yet to win this year.
The members of the group, now down to 10, say they have changed dramatically since showing up to their first practice as highly touted high school wrestlers five years ago.
They also say the demands of the program have built a unique bond between them.
“My best friends are all on this team,” Justin Bronson, who had to walk-on with the team and still receives only a partial athletic scholarship, said. “We see each other more than we see our immediate families, so in a way, these guys become your immediate family.”
As juniors last season, they led the team to a national championship. Reiter, Manuel Rivera, C.P. Schlatter, Gabriel Dretsch and Kish combined to go 16-10 in the tournament.
“One thing I’ll never forget, and I know they won’t either, is those guys leading us to a title last year,” assistant coach Brandon Eggum said. “The way they pulled together shows you that it’s a special group of guys.”
Their careers haven’t come without loses, however.
Eight of the seniors starting regularly this season wrestled at least 20 matches their freshman season, as the team went just 12-6 and finished eigth in the NCAA tournament. A year later they would go 9-9, the worst dual-meet record of a Minnesota team in 13 years.
“We struggled a lot that year, and we sat through a lot of chewings,” Reiter said. “I think that really brought us together as a group, going through all those ups and downs.”
With five seniors ranked in the top 11 of their weight classes and few experienced underclassman, this may be the Gophers’ last chance at a national championship for some time.
“These seniors have done so much to grow this program,” Eggum said. “They’ve won every title you can possibly win. It’ll hurt to see them go, I know that.”