McLay wrestles with taking on a new role for team

Aaron Blake

All 184-pound Minnesota wrestler Josh McLay had to do to win his biggest match of the season on Feb. 15 was stand up – kind of.

McLay’s effortless escape at the beginning of the third period and a second stall warning on Iowa’s 13th-ranked Paul Bradley midway through the period gave McLay a 2-1 lead he wouldn’t yield.

The match itself was hardly thrilling enough to bring the crowd to its feet. But the context of the match made Gophers fans holler louder than they had all night, and Minnesota went on to defeat the then-eighth-ranked Hawkeyes 18-15 in a stunning comeback spurred by McLay’s upset.

The junior has struggled to a 10-13 record since switching from 174 to 184 pounds early this season. But just as his team is headed in the right direction as it nears the postseason, he and others said they feel a few minor adjustments and experience are soon to pay off.

The key for McLay now is being comfortable enough with bigger opponents to be aggressive and score points.

“I’m a real defensive wrestler,” he said. “And, especially now that I’m going up a weight class, I have to be extra careful for that. It makes it even more low-scoring of a match, because, any mistake I make, I can be taken down because they’re so big.”

The statistics tell the story of McLay’s defensiveness.

Each of his eight Big Ten matches were decided by two points or less, and the average match included less than five total points. Nobody has scored a major decision on him the whole season.

“Because of the size, he has a little bit of a hard time scoring,” 197-pound national champion Damion Hahn said. “But it’s almost impossible to score on him, and, in his matches, it shows.”

Thankfully, the evidence of McLay’s recent progress at the new weight is also apparent.

Though he began the Big Ten season 0-5, McLay has rebounded to win two of his final three conference matches – including the one over Bradley.

On Sunday, he nearly defeated the defending national champion at 184 pounds, Oklahoma State’s Jake Rosholt. In a reversal of the Bradley match, Rosholt scored a 2-1 decision as a result of what Hahn called an “iffy” second stall warning on McLay.

Hahn can relate to McLay’s experience at a new weight, although it came much easier to him.

Hahn switched from 184 to 197 pounds early last season, but for different reasons. He said it was a drain on his body to wrestle at 184 pounds. Because the team didn’t have a strong 197-pounder in place, he took the step up so he could focus on wrestling instead of weight.

Hahn’s switch was much more natural for his physical stature, though. McLay admitted he’s even a small 174-pounder and that he could probably wrestle at 165.

But increased his body mass (he’s up to the low-180s now) and strategy adjustments under the guidance of coach J Robinson are starting to come in handy.

“What J’s trying to work on with me is changing my offense so I don’t have to put myself underneath guys and get extended,” McLay said. “When that happens, all of their weight comes on top of me and makes it that much harder.”

Now McLay needs to find a way to turn low-scoring matches into victories by taking advantage of scoring opportunities when they present themselves.

Or maybe stalemated matches like the victory over Bradley will be good enough.

“He had a huge confidence boost in that match,” Hahn said. “I think it’s just going to keep progressing as we go into the Big Ten Tournament. He’s going to turn it up, and I think he’s going to surprise some people this year.”