It’s more of the same as this year’s NCAA wrestling championships approach.
Since 1975, Oklahoma State, Iowa and Minnesota have combined to take all but three national titles. And the way things have shaped up in recent weeks, Gophers wrestlers are expecting the usual suspects to provide their stiffest competition once again next week.
The third-ranked Gophers begin their quest for a third championship in four years when they travel to St. Louis on Tuesday to take part in the tournament Thursday through Saturday.
“A lot of people are happy to just hang in there with the best,” 174-pounder Jon Duncombe said. “But, at Minnesota, you can never be happy with anything but first. That’s a really good attitude.”
Last weekend, the first-ranked Cowboys ran away from the other four teams in the Big 12 tournament, and the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes held off the Gophers on the last day of competition for a five-point victory at the Big Ten tournament in Columbus, Ohio.
All three teams look to be peaking in mid-March.
The only Minnesota wrestler who failed to qualify for the NCAAs at the conference tournament was 149-pound freshman Jeremy Anderson.
The Cowboys will bring just eight wrestlers this year after bringing 10 and capturing the title from the Gophers last year. But all eight of their competitors are ranked – seven in the top 10 in the nation.
“Oklahoma State has a bunch of quality,” Minnesota coach J Robinson said. “But, on the other hand, their strength is also their weakness. If some of those guys get upset along the way, they’re in big trouble.”
Iowa will bring 10 wrestlers, thanks to seventh-place-match victories from 133-pounder Trent Goodale and heavyweight Ryan Fuller in Columbus.
Though the Hawkeyes have the extra wrestler and the Cowboys have highly ranked individuals, Minnesota is banking on what its conditioning can do for it toward the end of the tournament.
“Most of the teams that we’re up against can’t handle those three days,” 197-pound Big Ten champion Damion Hahn said. “It’s getting toward the end of the year, and it’s a long season. Some guys are like, ‘Give me a reason to quit.’ “
The Gophers entered the second and last day of competition at the conference tournament last weekend trailing by 18 points. Front-runner Iowa had five wrestlers in the final matches at it individual weights while Minnesota had only two.
Hahn said he felt some of the younger wrestlers didn’t realize how possible it was to overcome the deficit and how valuable the wrestlebacks can be to the team effort.
To begin the second day, Minnesota wrestlers lost their first four wrestleback matches.
As it turned out, the Hawkeyes lost four of their title matches while Hahn and 165-pounder Jacob Volkmann both won theirs for Minnesota.
Minnesota lost by a 129.5-124.5 margin, and the team knows that one individual match could have made the difference.
By focusing on every match and especially the wrestlebacks the Gophers will attempt to beat both Iowa and Oklahoma State – just like they did during the dual season.
“A lot of it is them changing and believing in themselves,” Robinson said. “And they know it. But it’s not enough about knowing it. It’s when you step out there and you have to do it.
“They know they’ve been trained the right way, and they know they’ve been getting better. But sometimes you’ve got to take that next step.”