The dual meet season was a disappointment for Iowa’s wrestling program. But fortunately for the nation’s third-ranked team, four dual meet defeats and the end of its 25-year reign as Big Ten champions had no bearing on the NCAA tournament.
Iowa’s wrestling dynasty is still alive and well, as the Hawkeyes proved on Mar. 20 by winning their fifth consecutive team crown and surging past tournament favorite Minnesota.
Instead of closing out a breakthrough season with a first-ever national title, the Gophers left State College, Pa., with a heartbreaking defeat.
Despite senior Tim Hartung’s individual championship at 197 pounds, the runner-up finish was a disappointment, especially after Minnesota spoiled Iowa’s league run by claiming the conference title for the first time since 1959.
“I feel terrible,” said Gophers coach J Robinson immediately following the tournament. “It isn’t a freaking happy feeling.”
Behind a veteran lineup, the Gophers were looking to improve over last season’s record-setting second place finish. But once again, only Hartung succeeded.
Hartung defended his 1998 title, becoming the first Minnesota wrestler to do so since Verne Gagne (1948-49). The 197-pounder defeated Iowa’s second-seeded Lee Fullhart 2-1.
Exactly like their Big Ten championship bout, which Hartung won 2-1, the top two grapplers in their weight class wrestled through a scoreless first period before Fullhart rode out the second.
Hartung wiped out Fullhart’s advantage time before the Hawkeyes grappler gained a one-point advantage, escaping with 48 ticks remaining. With 36 seconds left, however, Hartung took down his long-time nemesis and tarnished the Hawkeyes celebration.
“It would have been a perfect night had Fullhart won,” Hawkeyes coach Jim Zalesky said.
Hartung’s final victory in a Gophers singlet preserved his perfect season (39-0) and increased the Durand, Wis., native’s win streak to 55 bouts.
As a part of the program’s turnaround class, the title holder was not the only one to leave the mat without a team championship trophy in tow. Bart Goyler (133), Troy Marr (149), four time All-American Chad Kraft (157) and Josh Holiday (165) all ended their Gophers careers.
But if Minnesota lives up to one of Holiday’s favorite mottos — “We don’t rebuild, we reload” — the team will be in the hunt again next season. Freshman Leroy Vega plans to keep the Gophers powerhouse alive.
About the only other Minnesota bright spot at the three-day event, the 10th-seeded Vega broke through to a fifth-place finish. But Vega said there are more pleasant surprises yet to come.
“We lose the great ones like Holiday, Kraft and Hartung,” Vega said. “Now we need guys to step it up like we had guys step it up this season.”
While some expect the loss of five senior starters to severely push Minnesota’s program back, Vega said next year’s team will be as much of a contender.
“We worked so hard and to have it end like that,” Vega said. “It was hard to let it sink in. We’ll be back next year.”