Wrestlers try to work out of mid-season funk

by Allison Younge

Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson admits that during the past three weeks his team has dealt with some frustration. A competitive funk, an injury, and lack of momentum have plagued the nation’s No. 3-ranked team. It’s resulted in marginal performances.
Take junior Zac Taylor. The 167-pounder is fighting a personal mid-season lull. Taylor has faced tough competition, but his attempts aren’t producing the needed results.
Minnesota (12-4) is hoping for some progress when it hosts Big Ten rival Penn State (11-3) at the Sports Pavilion on Sunday.
The Gophers downed the Lions 21-10 in the semifinal match of the National Duals Tournament on Jan. 18. The team returned to beat the Lions again in the third-place match, 19-15.
Robinson hopes the team can rebound this weekend. And that starts with Taylor.
“Zac is in a slump,” Robinson said. “He’s lacking the intensity and focus that he had earlier this season.”
Taylor, ranked No. 3 individually, was defeated 5-0 by top-ranked Mark Branch from Oklahoma State, and fell to Wisconsin’s Kevin Wilmot (No. 5) in the Gophers’ following match.
Known for his toughness and competitive drive, Taylor isn’t happy with his performance lately. “I know that I need to change some things, both technically and mentally,” he said. “But those losses are old news, and I have to come back wanting to win even more.”
Taylor’s rigid schedule isn’t going to give him any easy matches in the next few weeks, but Robinson thinks Taylor’s slump is coming at a manageable point in the season.
“This situation is a concern, but it’s not a crisis,” Robinson said. “If he’s going to have a slump, now’s the time to have it. We have to make sure he comes out of it in time for Big Tens and nationals.”
Taylor isn’t the only one feeling frustration. The entire team has been affected by the loss of the injured Brandon Paulson.
Paulson, then ranked No. 6 at 118 pounds, suffered an ankle injury at the National Duals. But there’s good news. After undergoing corrective ankle surgery last week, Paulson is expected to return just in time for Big Tens.
Before Paulson’s injury, Minnesota held a 9-1 record. Since then, the Gophers have gone 2-3.
A silver medalist in the 1996 summer Olympics, Paulson is a big part of the Gophers’ lineup. As the leadoff wrestler, he is counted on to build momentum.
“We’re doing everything to get him back as soon as we can,” Robinson said. “It’s a day-by-day deal.”
Since the injury, Robinson has scrambled for a replacement. Kipp Williamson, a junior, will compete for Minnesota as soon as he can make the weight requirement. Williamson, a former teammate, wrestled two years for Minnesota, but left the team earlier this season. Robinson said he hopes Williamson can make the 118-pound weight for Sunday’s match.
Williamson’s return offers Minnesota a chance to save points and erase the automatic six-point deficit that has hung over the team in Paulson’s absence.
Meanwhile, the Gophers hope Taylor will return to form, as well, this weekend. Taylor will face Penn State’s No. 2-ranked Glenn Pritzlaff. Taylor beat Pritzlaff in a close 12-11 battle in their first meeting. But Pritzlaff came back in the third place match to down Taylor 11-6.
Sunday will provide Taylor with an opportunity to snap his wrestling standstill and again beat Pritzlaff.
“He needs to control the match,” Robinson said. “Pritzlaff is a good wrestler; Zac has to shut his strengths down.”
Note: Sophomore 190-pounder Tim Hartung was named Big Ten Wrestler of the Month for January. Hartung, ranked No. 3 at 190 pounds, boasts a perfect 22-0 record this season.