Gophers put trust in recent transfer

by Allison Younge

Five years ago, heavyweight wrestler Billy Pierce entered the Gophers lineup and became one of the best heavyweight wrestlers in Minnesota history.
Pierce, a three-time All-American and 1995 Big Ten champion, placed fifth at the NCAAs as a senior last season. He compiled an outstanding 142-26 career record with the Gophers.
“With Pierce, we always had a closer,” Robinson said. “A sure win.”
The Gophers (ranked No. 3) have struggled at the heavyweight position in Pierce’s absence, totaling a 34-18 mark at that weight so far this season.
Robinson admits that Pierce added confidence to the Gophers lineup, but current heavyweight Shelton Benjamin (14-8) has the potential and ability to be just as dominating as his predecessor.
“Shelton has the ability to beat anyone in the nation,” Robinson said.
When Benjamin decided to transfer to Minnesota from Lassen (Calif.) Community College and wrestle for the Gophers, he was very aware of the successful heavyweight that he would replace.
“Pierce is a great wrestler,” Benjamin said. “I knew coming in that I had big shoes to fill, and my teammates had high expectations for me.”
Ever since high school, Benjamin’s natural athletic ability has been evident. “I was moved up to play varsity football as a 10th grader. My coach (the linebacker coach) was also the wrestling coach, and he convinced me to try wrestling,” Benjamin said.
At South Carolina’s Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School, Benjamin earned state honors in football and track, as well as two heavyweight titles in wrestling.
After placing third at Nationals as a senior, Benjamin was recruited by coach Rex Branum at Lassen.
“Division I schools couldn’t sign me, because I took my SAT test too late,” Benjamin said. “It worked out that I could wrestle at Lassen, and I’d always wanted to go to California.”
Benjamin was a two-time national junior college All-American at Lassen and won a national junior college heavyweight title his sophomore season. With two years of wrestling eligibility left, Benjamin left the California sunshine and join the Gophers program.
When Benjamin got to Minnesota, he was overwhelmed by the wrestling style changes that he faced.
“At Lassen, I wasn’t pressured to attack; I’d just let my opponent come to me, and I’d counter his move. Here, I have to go right at him and push him around,” Benjamin said.
Robinson knows that the transition from junior college wrestling to D-I hasn’t been easy for Benjamin.
“Shelton brings the credentials of success from a different world,” Robinson said. “Now, he’s adjusting to our world.”
It takes hard work to keep pace with the Gophers’ intense, aggressive style, but Benjamin has made huge strides — especially within the last three weeks.
“Recently, Shelton’s attitude has really improved, and he’s working a lot harder,” Robinson said. “Now he really needs to go after it.”
Robinson even offered Benjamin a challenge for the remainder of the season. “I told him, Shelton, if you bust your butt for the next eight weeks, you’ll win the national tournament. Eight weeks of unbelievable hell in exchange for a honor you’ll have for the rest of your life — it’s a small price to pay.”
Benjamin will get a chance to prove himself as a top contending heavyweight this weekend. The Gophers compete against No. 1-ranked Oklahoma State tonight at Gallagher-Iba Arena. The Cowboys post a 15-0 record and have won 19 dual matches in a row.
The Gophers will have to wrestle without mistake to beat this national wrestling power. The Gophers will forfeit the 118 pound match in the absence of No. 6-ranked Brandon Paulson. Paulson underwent corrective ankle surgery Wednesday and will sit out for two or three weeks. Tim Hartung, ranked No. 3 at 190, will return to the lineup tonight to meet the Cowboys.
“We can’t give them any big points,” said Robinson. “We have to wrestle them even up.”
Sunday, the Gophers meet Wisconsin at Williams Arena. The Badgers (6-5-1) are ninth in the Big Ten.