Minnesota prepares for Big Ten meet

The Gophers are looking to solidify their No. 1 ranking this weekend.

by Jared Christensen

No. 1 Minnesota has done its part this season to prove it’s the best in the nation.

This weekend, the Gophers will travel to Madison, Wis., with an opportunity to solidify their spot in the rankings at the Big Ten tournament.

The tournament features the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the nation and will serve as yet another test for Minnesota.

The Gophers boast a lineup featuring eight wrestlers ranked in the top 10 of their respective weight classes.

Minnesota has held the No. 1 ranking as a team since upsetting Penn State on Feb. 9.

And this weekend, for the first time in a few weeks, the team will have its entire lineup fully intact, head assistant coach Brandon Eggum said.

A number of wrestlers — including two-time NCAA heavyweight champion Tony Nelson and All-America 141-pounder Chris Dardanes — missed significant time down the stretch.

Eggum said he expects both wrestlers to be in the starting lineup when the conference tournament starts.

“They look great,” he said. “We’re going to see great matches right out of the gate, but our guys are ready to go.”

Gophers junior Logan Storley, ranked No. 6 at 174 pounds, said he’s optimistic about the team’s chances this weekend.

“We’re feeling confident,” he said. “It was nice to get a small break this past weekend, and before that, we had a great win over Iowa State.

“It’s just about putting together a great two days of wrestling, then getting ready for NCAAs.”

Nelson, who’s been the heavyweight to beat since claiming his first NCAA title as a sophomore, stumbled a few times against Big Ten foes this year.

But even though he won just half of his matches against conference opponents, the back-to-back national champion said he’ll be ready to go when the tournament kicks off.

“This is always when you’re feeling your best,” he said. “That’s when I have the ability to compete at the highest level. And I’ve performed well in tournaments throughout my entire career.”

Nelson’s tough conference slate illustrates the competition level in the Big Ten.

And his weight class might be one of the toughest, featuring seven wrestlers ranked in the top eight in the nation. Nelson will enter the Big Ten tournament as the No. 5 seed.

Still, that’s not the only tough weight class this year.

Dylan Ness, ranked No. 6 in the nation, is one of six Big Ten wrestlers ranked in the top eight at 157 pounds. He said he’s excited for the chance to wrestle with the best.

“I’m excited and ready to go,” the junior said. “I’ve got a tough, exciting bracket.”

While the competition will be strong, Eggum emphasized that the team is always focused for big matches. He said the Gophers have a reputation as a power in these types of matches.

“That’s the reason these guys come to Minnesota,” he said. “They want to wrestle against the best guys in the country. And the Big Ten is miles ahead of any other conference in terms of wrestling.”

Up and down the lineup, the Gophers have wrestlers who are capable of going toe-to-toe with that level of competition.

Minnesota will strive to win its first Big Ten tournament title since 2007 — the same year in which it also won the NCAA title.

“I want to be on top,” Nelson said. “And anything less would be a disappointment.”