No. 1 Gophers and No. 3 Iowa ready for battle at ‘X’

by Brian Stensaas

On the maroon sponge mats in the humid bowels of the Bierman Athletic Building, one would never know Minnesota’s wrestling season is two days away from beginning.

Rather, it would seem the season-ending NCAA championships are right around the corner.

Defending 157-pound national champion Luke Becker jogs in place, bruises under both eyes.

“We’ve been at it pretty hard so far,” he said, with a hint of enjoyment in his voice.

Despite off-season knee surgery that will put him out of competition for at least another month, 184-pound Damion Hahn swiftly jumps rope with ease.

To his far right, heavyweights Garrett Lowney and Cole Konrad spar. Lowney – the defending Big Ten champion – tosses Konrad over his shoulder like a rag doll, resulting in a big thud.

Yes, the wrestling season has definitely begun. And top-ranked Minnesota gets started Friday night with a highly publicized non-conference dual meet against No. 3 Iowa at the Xcel Energy Center.

The event will be similar to the one held last February between the two powerhouses at the Target Center, complete with masters of ceremonies, prematch events and pyrotechnics.

The event is over halfway toward its goal of breaking the NCAA dual meet record for fans, and the Iowa-Minnesota football game Saturday is expected to bring more fans to the Xcel Center. Last season’s Target Center dual set the bar, bringing in 15,646 spectators.

“Something like this is good,” Minnesota coach J Robinson said. “It’s like the Super Bowl. You don’t go, sit down, watch the game and leave. You go for the show. And this year it’s going to be the same way.”

The Gophers head into the meet with Iowa not only as the two-time defending national champions, but with more than a few question marks in the 10 weight classes.

Gone are All-Americans Leroy Vega (125 pounds), Chad Erikson (141) and Owen Elzen (197). The last time these two teams met, both Hahn and Elzen posted major-decision wins en route to the Gophers’ 22-15 win.

It’s evident someone will need to step in and fill the void if the Gophers expect the same result.

“In a meet like this, you have to win the matches you’re supposed to and pick up a few upsets,” Robinson said. “And that can go either way (against Iowa).”

One man looking for an upset is 141-pound Tommy Owen. The redshirt freshman from Spokane, Wash., faces a tough task Friday in Luke Moffitt. Ranked No. 8 at 125, Moffitt pinned Erikson a year ago at the Target Center. Owens, however, is trying to forget about what’s supposed to happen and focus on his skills.

“I’m getting a little nervous; I’m not expected to win, but I’m just going to go out there and wrestle,” Owns said. “You can’t let nerves turn into getting scared. A million things will be going through my mind, but I’ll try not to let them get in the way.”

Both Minnesota and Iowa return seven NCAA qualifiers from last year’s respective teams.

Friday’s match will only add fuel to the already white-hot fire between the two programs. In the last 10 meetings, the average margin of victory was 6.4 points. Two years ago, the Gophers won their first NCAA crown on the Hawkeyes’ home floor.

Last season, Minnesota not only edged Iowa in the dual meet but won its second championship after the Hawkeyes had claimed six straight from 1995-2000.

Iowa headman Jim Zalesky welcomes the upbeat format of the scheduled match but warns its significance might not truly be felt like a late season dual.

“It’s an important meet for both programs, but it’s only November,” he said. “It’s a gauge for where we’re at, but we’ll be shooting for what happens in March.”

Brian Stensaas welcomes comments at [email protected]