Konrad ready to step in at heavyweight for U

Aaron Blake

Cole Konrad and Garrett Lowney might come from the same high school in Wisconsin, but don’t tell Minnesota wrestling coach J Robinson that they come from the same stock.

“They’re two different people completely,” Robinson said of the pair of Freedom High School graduates. “Garrett was smaller, so he’s more conservative. Cole’s larger, and he moves well for a big man. I think he’ll be a lot more aggressive heavyweight than Garrett was.”

Lowney, who wrestled at heavyweight for the Gophers the last three years, left the program after last year and forewent his final year of eligibility to train for the 2004 Olympic Games held in August in Athens, Greece.

Since that decision, Konrad has been the heir apparent. The freshman took a redshirt year and was groomed into the role occupied by All-Americans for the past 11 years at Minnesota – Billy Pierce from 1993-96, Shelton Benjamin from 1997-98, Brock Lesnar from 1999-2000 and Lowney since 2001.

And the 285-pound youngster might just be big enough to fill those shoes.

Or, at least, he believes he is.

“I expect myself to perform how I should, being the starting heavyweight for this team,” Konrad said. “I expect myself to be one of the top wrestlers in the nation, but I don’t really feel any pressure coming from that.

“My goal is to win a national title this year.”

Konrad might not have the Olympic bronze medal hanging in his trophy case like Lowney, who won it in Greco-Roman at the 2000 Sydney games. But the 19-year-old who trained with Lowney’s dad in high school is accomplished in his own right.

As a high school senior, he won both the freestyle and Greco-Roman titles at the 2002 Junior National Championships. This summer, he repeated as a double champion at Junior Nationals in Chattanooga, Tenn., and went on to compete at the World Junior Freestyle Championships in Istanbul, Turkey.

Konrad lost in the second round to the eventual bronze medalist, Tamerlan Piliev of Russia. But he received 10 days of training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., in addition to the experience.

Both Robinson and his new starting heavyweight agree that experiences such as the World Junior Championships are beneficial for young wrestlers. It is just a portion, though, of everything Konrad has done in preparation for this season.

His coach repeatedly uses the word “diligent” – as in adhering to a diet and weight-lifting routine, which helped Konrad reduce his body fat from 33 percent to 17 percent.

“He did a lot of stuff internationally, but he did stuff at camp too,” Robinson said. “He stepped up as a leader. He got bigger and stronger.

“Preparation changes your expectation, and that’s why I think he has a different expectation – because he’s prepared different than a lot of the others.”

Robinson said expectations are the main difference between freshmen and seniors. Because Konrad has been so diligent with his preparation, his expectations as a redshirt freshman are higher than most.

Especially in the category of leadership. He acknowledges that a leadership role has come with the territory of being the starting heavyweight at Minnesota. He embraces the opportunity to be the leader that Lowney, Lesnar and the others were.

For Robinson, Konrad’s leadership begins with the example he sets for the other wrestlers.

Konrad knew before anybody else that he was going to be Lowney’s successor. Robinson said once his heavyweight knew what was required of him, his response was immediate and effective.

Now all that’s left for Konrad to become a national champion this year are the actual matches.

So far this year, Konrad has won the heavyweight bracket at the Harold Nichols Open in Fort Dodge, Iowa, beating defending Division II champion Les Sigman of Nebraska-Omaha in the title match. He then lost to Sigman in the championship match at the Kaufman-Brand Open in Omaha, Neb.

Once he gets a few more matches under his belt, he and the history of Minnesota heavyweights will expect more.

But his teammates might expect the most.

“I personally think, by the time he’s done here, he’s going to be the one to beat (Iowa’s defending national champion) Steve Mocco,” Gophers senior Damion Hahn said. “He’s 285 pounds and he wrestles. He goes after you. He shoots. He doesn’t just stand there like a traditional heavyweight.”

Like Lowney, Mocco is taking a redshirt year to train for the Olympics.

So, for now, all Konrad can do is prepare.