Last year, after placing third at the NCAA tournament, the Gophers wrestling team positioned its sights on a national title. Even though the team finished one notch short of its ultimate goal and accepted runner-up honors this season, Gophers coach J Robinson said he is optimistic about the future and hopes the tournament sequence continues.
“It’s a good step for us, for where we want to go with the program,” Robinson said. “Last year it was third, this year it was second and next year is a whole new ball game.”
The 1997-98 season offered plenty of highlights — many of which will serve as benchmarks for future Minnesota wrestlers.
ù In early December, the Gophers broke into the season by posting four straight shut-out victories. Minnesota overwhelmed Mankato State 38-0, Truman State 57-0, Augustana 53-0 and San Francisco State 46-0. The Gophers recorded 18 pins in the four-match stint.
ù On Jan. 18, senior heavyweight Shelton Benjamin validated his nickname “Prime Time” by pinning Iowa’s Wes Hand, lifting the Gophers to a one-point victory over the Hawkeyes and earning Minnesota’s first-ever National Dual Meet team title.
ù Five days later, the Gophers’ previous dual-meet attendance record was shattered when 11,284 fans packed into Williams Arena to watch Minnesota’s rematch with Iowa.
ù On Feb. 16-17, following three weeks of hibernation, the Gophers awoke to earn large-margin victories over Michigan and Michigan State. In Minnesota’s final home series, junior 134-pounder Bart Golyer pinned Michigan State’s sixth-ranked Pat McNamara in 5:47.
Seniors Benjamin and Zac Taylor (167 pounds) continued the trend by upsetting their highly acclaimed Michigan opponents. Also, sophomore Delaney Berger, Minnesota’s backup 167-pounder, jumped up a weight class to replace injured starter Brandon Eggum and scored two major decision victories at 177 pounds.
ù On Feb. 20, former Olympian Brandon Paulson put off retirement and returned to the Gophers’ lineup. He won his first match of the season over Northwestern by forfeit.
ù The following day, in the team’s final dual meet against Purdue, senior Jason Davids broke the school record for career dual-meet victories. The veteran 142-pounder finished with 79 career dual-meet wins.
ù On March 8 at the Big Ten tournament in State College Pa., junior Tim Hartung captured his second consecutive Big Ten title after downing Iowa’s Lee Fullhart by a score of 3-1 in sudden-death overtime. While disappointed with their third-place finish overall, the Gophers qualified nine wrestlers for the NCAA tournament.
ù On March 20, although losing en route to the finals, Eggum and Benjamin were successful in momentarily quieting the Hawkeyes’ thundering crowd as they wrestled back to capture All-American honors at the NCAA tournament. Eggum earned a technical fall victory over Iowa’s Paul Jenn and Benjamin pinned Hand for a second time, throwing the Hawkeyes an effective one-two punch.
ù That same day, juniors Hartung and Chad Kraft knocked off pesky Big Ten opponents to vault into the finals. With the wins, Hartung and Kraft became the first Gophers duo to make the finals in the same year in school history.
ù The next day, although Kraft sustained a severe ankle injury and lost his finals match, Hartung regained momentum for the Gophers by capturing his first national title. In addition, Hartung’s final match points lifted Minnesota to a second-place team finish — the highest NCAA finish in team history.
While the 1997-98 season proved to be a landmark in the Gophers wrestling annals, the team showed no signs of complacency following the NCAA tournament.
“It’s like anything else, when you get this close it’s tough,” Robinson said. “It’s a good stepping stone for us. It shows that we’re making progress.”