Wrestlers advance in NCAA tourney

ST. LOUIS — After the first day at the 2000 NCAA wrestling championships in the Gateway city, the Gophers are still searching the Kiel Center for the a key that will unlock the gate to a national championship.
But while Minnesota hasn’t found the key, they’ve certainly found the coins — and some aggressiveness.
Led by two double-overtime wins by freshman Luke Becker and junior Brad Pike, in which both Gophers won the all-important coin flip that led to a pair of escapes, Minnesota sits in fourth following the first day.
The Gophers have 28.5 points. Oklahoma State is on top with 38, followed by defending champion Iowa with 33.5 and Iowa State with 30.
Despite trailing, the second-ranked Gophers are definitely in the hunt. Six of their wrestlers won their first- and second-round matches, qualifying for Friday’s quarterfinals. The other three are alive in the consolation bracket.
“We got a couple of breaks tonight on the flip of the coin, which was important,” Minnesota coach J Robinson said. “But at the same time, the guys wrestled hard the whole time, which is important too. Tomorrow is a big round, a big, big round.”
And while tomorrow will be a true test of whether or not the Gophers can make a run at the national title, they nearly aced the pre-test Thursday.
The first Minnesota wrestler to qualify for the quarterfinals was Leroy Vega at 125 pounds. The third-seeded sophomore defeated Michigan’s A. J. Grant 20-4 in a major decision in his second match of the day.
“Every match is do-or-die. I gotta go out there and fight,” Vega said. “Every match is a goddamn war out there.
“I’ve been reading a lot of books on Muhammad Ali the past week and a half. He always had a positive attitude. People said he was cocky and stuff. But you gotta go out there with the attitude that you are the greatest and no one’s going to beat you. That’s what I have right now. In my mind, I’m the greatest.”
Vega’s aggressive style set the stage for the rest of the evening. Fourth-seeded freshman Jared Lawrence (149) followed Vega into the quarters with a strong 11-3 decision over Indiana’s Tim Myers.
Lawrence’s freshman sidekick, Becker, had to battle longer, taking Bloomsberg’s Ed Hockenberry to double overtime. The eighth-seeded Becker won the coin flip, which led to an escape and a 7-6 win.
Becker’s win sets up a third meeting with Iowa’s T. J. Williams on Friday. Williams has beaten Becker twice this season.
Pike, a nine seed, followed Becker with a double overtime win of his own, a 2-1 decision over Robbie Walker of Oklahoma.
“I just prayed (the coin) would land red,” Pike said. “I’m thinking red, red. I knew if I won (the flip), he couldn’t hold me down.”
Along with Vega, Lawrence, Becker and Pike, Minnesota’s Brandon Eggum (184) and Brock Lesnar (heavyweight) also advanced to the quarters. Both Eggum and Lesnar — who pinned Lehigh’s Shawn Laughlin — are looking to avenge losses in the last year’s finals.
Eggum said the wins which may lie ahead added to his momentum.
“I got excited, it woke me up a little bit,” Eggum said. “That was a good feeling.”
For the Gophers, they’re hoping the strong first day will keep them awake, and in the hunt for a title, through Saturday.
“We have a real good attitude,” Lawrence said. “We’ll keep going and we’ll catch them.”

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