Wrestlers poised heading into Big Tens

by Allison Younge

This weekend, the No. 3 Gophers play host to the Big Ten wrestling tournament at Williams Arena. Minnesota will need consistently strong performances to contend with conference powerhouses Iowa, Illinois and Penn State.
The Big Ten is typically billed as the toughest wrestling conference in the nation as eight teams are ranked in the top 25.
After a successful 16-4 regular season, the Gophers are set to battle for individual and team Big Ten titles. Here is the breakdown of the Gophers’ lineup.
118 pounds
Brandon Paulson, a 1996 Olympic silver-medalist, returns to the mat for the Gophers in hopes of adding Big Ten hardware to his already impressive collection. Paulson, a junior, injured his ankle at the National Duals tournament and underwent corrective ankle surgery Jan. 29. Saturday marks his first official match with the Gophers in a month and a half.
Paulson (16-2) holds the position of most-recognized Gophers wrestler, capturing crowd momentum with his confident, aggressive style. Even though his regular season was cut short by injury, in 18 matches, Paulson recorded eight pins for the Gophers.
Most Wanted Opponent: Paulson looks forward to meeting Michigan State’s returning Big Ten champion David Morgan. Paulson defeated Morgan during his freshman (1993-94) season, but hasn’t competed against him since.
“Our styles are pretty different,” Paulson said. “I can’t let him get me on the mat. If I stay on my feet the whole match I’ll be in control at the end.”
126 Pounds
Sophomore Pat Connors earned a solid position in the Gophers lineup near the end of the regular season. Since then, Connors has broken into the national rankings at No. 11. He won his last four season matches and shows no signs of apprehension for the Big Tens.
“Last year I didn’t have much confidence going into the Big Tens, now I have a year of maturity, and I feel a lot more confident in my wrestling,” Connors said.
Most Wanted Opponents: Connors expects to be seeded third in the tournament behind Iowa’s Mike Mena and Wisconsin’s Eric Jetton. Mena and Jetton downed Connors in dual meets earlier this year, but Minnesota’s determined 126-pounder awaits rematches from his strong competitors.
“I’d like to wrestle both Mena and Jetton, but I need to get there first,” Connors said.
134 Pounds
Sophomore Troy Marr has already wrestled five 134-pound Big Ten tournament contenders. Knowing some of his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses could prove to be a great advantage for him going into the Big Tens.
Lately, Marr hasn’t had time to worry about his opponents, he is too busy concentrating on dropping weight to make the 134 pound requirement.
“This week I’ve been focusing on making weight,” Marr said. “It’s pretty tough for me.”
Iowa’s two-time Big Ten champion, Mark Ironside, will offer another challenge for Marr and the other conference contenders at 134. Ironside, a junior, downed Marr twice during the regular season.
Big Ten coaches predicted Marr to be seeded third at 134 pounds in a pre-seeding poll with Ironside holding the top seed. This means the two would only meet in the Big Ten finals.
Most Wanted Opponent: The only other Big Ten 134-pounder to beat Marr this year is Ohio State’s Jeff Bucher. In the Gophers final regular season match, Bucher defeated Marr by decision 9-2 — the Big Tens could easily offer a rematch.
142 Pounds
The Gophers will count on Jason Davids, ranked No. 2 at 142 pounds, to bring his explosive style and feisty attitude to the Big Tens this weekend.
Last year, Iowa’s senior Bill Zadick proved to be David’s thorn in the Big Tens, downing him in the finals 5-4. With Zadick gone, the tournament figures Davids to be favored in title contention.
Most Wanted Opponent: Davids holds a 28-2 record this season, losing only to Indiana’s Roger Chandler (ranked No. 1) and Iowa’s Kasey Gilliss.
“Zadick was the key to stopping me last year,” Davids said. “This year Chandler is my new Zadick. I’ve just got to turn it around.”
Davids will likely be seeded second in the Big Tens, meaning he would only meet Chandler in the title match.
150 Pounds
Sophomore Chad Kraft finished sixth last year at the Big Tens, and advanced to earn All-America honors at the NCAA Tournament. Kraft, marked by his relentless work ethic, realizes the 150 pound Big Ten title is up for grabs. This year, Kraft’s weight class is packed full of experience and talent.
“The top three guys in my weight class are probably going to end up finishing in the top four at nationals,” Kraft said.
Most Wanted Opponent: Iowa’s 1995 Big Ten champion, Lincoln McIlravy, returns to the tournament after redshirting the 1996 season. McIlravy, along with Michigan’s Bill Lacure and Illinois’ Eric Siebert will give Kraft some stiff competition.
“Everyone has pretty much beaten each other at one time or another,” Kraft said. “Except McIlravy.”
Kraft and the other 150-pound contenders possess one advantage over Iowa’s reigning dynamo.
“McIlravy has had to sit out because of a head injury for the last month and a half,” Kraft said. “He’s capable of being beaten.”
158 Pounds
Sophomore Josh Holiday eagerly awaits his second opportunity to compete at the Big Tens. Last year Holiday lost his first two matches. Before this season even began, Holiday promised himself that two quick Big Ten losses wouldn’t be felt again.
“This year I decided, I’ve worked too hard. It’s going to pay off, it’s not all going to be in vain,” Holiday said.
Most Wanted Opponent: Two national champions, Iowa’s Joe Williams and Illinois’ Ernest Benion, intend to dampen Holiday’s hope of a title. Even though Williams downed Holiday twice this season, the Gophers’ flashy 158-pounder looks forward to Big Ten veterans.
“I’m taking a couple days off, so when I step on the mat for Big Tens I’ll be hungry,” Holiday said. “I’ll be feeling good.”
167 Pounds
Junior Zac Taylor will return to the Big Ten Tournament after taking last year off to fulfill Olympic commitments. In 1995, Taylor managed to place sixth in the Big Tens after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament earlier in the season. He was ranked No. 1 at 167 pounds before the injury.
At this year’s Big Tens, Taylor (fully recovered from his injury) will get a chance to prove his prowess. The Gophers’ relentless 167-pounder has already met his major Big Ten competition during the regular season.
Most Wanted Opponent: Taylor will look to knock off Penn State’s Glenn Pritzlaff, Michigan’s Jeff Catrabone and Wisconsin’s Kevin Wilmot.
A Pritzlaff-Taylor bout at Big Tens would mark their fourth this season. Pritzlaff leads the series 2-1, and Taylor wants to even the score. He edged Pritzlaff in the National Duals 12-11, but lost (12-11, 12-10) in their last two meetings.
177 Pounds
Freshman Brandon Eggum enters the Big Tens as a rookie hoping to break through and establish himself among top conference competitors. He has recorded a solid 17-6 overall record at 177. Robinson is pleased with the progress Eggum has shown in the last two weeks.
The Gophers’ only starting freshman is primed for the exciting tournament weekend.
“I feel the best I’ve felt all year,” Eggum said. “I’m feeling good and strong and ready to go.”
Most Wanted Opponent: All but one of Eggum’s losses have been to ranked wrestlers. Michigan State’s Erich Harvey is likely to pose a strong challenge.
“There are two guys that I’ve wrestled (Harvey, and Ohio State’s Mitch Clark) that are at about the same difficulty level.” Eggum said. “And I’m looking to upset them.”
190 Pounds
Sophomore Tim Hartung strung together a 23-match win streak this season and is currently ranked No. 3 at 190 pounds. His only loss came on Feb. 15, in the Gophers’ match against Michigan State. Hartung was defeated by the Spartan’s Brian Picklo in overtime 2-1.
At the National Duals Tournament on Jan. 18, Hartung defeated Picklo, 1-0, in an almost identical overtime match. Picklo and Hartung are likely to meet for the third matchup, a tie-breaker, in the Big Ten finals.
Most Wanted Opponent: Hartung, nicknamed~ ~~’the beast’ because of his fierce, competitive attitude, has positioned his sights on a Big Ten championship and refuses to settle for less. First, he will have to get past Picklo in order to do it.
“I’m going into this tournament to win it, Hartung said. “Nothing else will satisfy me.”
A solid performance by Shelton Benjamin will be necessary for survival among the top Big Ten heavyweight contenders. This weekend marks Benjamin’s first Big Ten tournament appearance. After transferring to Minnesota from Lassen Community College (Calif.), Benjamin has a shot at a title.
“This is exciting for me,” Benjamin said. “I never thought I’d be at this level.” Benjamin’s most impressive win this season came against Michigan’s sixth-ranked Airron Richardson. Richardson and four other highly ranked heavyweights will pace the action at the Big Tens.
Most Wanted Opponent: Benjamin’s title-potential must again transform into skilled execution for him to contend with opponents such as No. 1 Kerry McCoy. McCoy downed Benjamin twice during the regular season. At the Big Tens, Benjamin wants another shot at Penn State’s sturdy heavyweight.
“I don’t care who I meet in the early rounds, but I want to meet Kerry McCoy in the finals,” Benjamin said.