Gophers have eye on the prize: a national championship

Most coaches avoid talking about the future. They donâÄôt bother with hype and get prickly every time they field a question about expectations. Minnesota assistant wrestling coach Joe Russell apparently has no problem discussing any of those things. WhatâÄôs on RussellâÄôs mind as Minnesota wrestles today and tomorrow at the ultra-competitive Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational ? The national championships, of course. âÄúIt will be a good learning experience for us early in the season to see where weâÄôre at against a lot of the top teams and individuals,âÄù he said. âÄúHaving this tournament in early December will help prepare us for March and nationals.âÄù ThatâÄôs right, a coach just laid out expectations. And not just the cookie-cutter âÄúwe expect to win this weekend and nothing else mattersâÄù expectation, but more like the âÄúweâÄôre going to be at the national championship in full forceâÄù expectation. But thatâÄôs how it goes when your team has finished in the top 10 at the NCAA championships every year since 1997 and has taken home a trio of national crowns in that span. After this weekend, the Gophers do not compete in a tournament format again until the Big Ten championships; every event until March 7 is a dual meet. It will be the last time before the conference tournament that Minnesota will have to weigh in on consecutive days and wrestle through a bracket. So the Gophers will use this weekend to gain experience and as a litmus test to see how it stacks up against teams it is sure to see again in March. At No. 8, Minnesota is one of 10 ranked teams appearing in Las Vegas. Russell said MinnesotaâÄôs lighter weights have been particularly dominant this season, but in Las Vegas, theyâÄôll be running up against competition they havenâÄôt experienced yet this season. The nationâÄôs top-ranked individual in seven of the 10 weight classes will take to the mat, including Angel Escobedo of Indiana at 125, the GophersâÄô Jayson Ness at 133, and Ohio StateâÄôs J Jaggers at 141. Jaggers is the reigning national champion at 141, meaning sophomore Mike Thorn, who is currently 11-0 and ranked 10th in the country , has his work cut out for him. ThatâÄôs something he relishes, however. âÄúThe beginning of the season is the time to prove yourself and show that youâÄôre in the mix with all the top guys,âÄù Thorn said. Ness will be protecting a perfect record as well. His move to 133 from 125 a year ago has been seamless, and heâÄôs quickly asserted his dominance with a 9-0 record, eight pins and a No. 1 individual ranking. âÄúHeâÄôs a great leader to have,âÄù Russell said of the junior. âÄúHe trains hard, does the right things on the mat, does the right things off the mat. ItâÄôs been great for our younger guys to model after him a little bit. They see what he does and as they copy it theyâÄôre going to have success as well.âÄù