Vegas tourney has ‘U’ looking to cash in

Brian Stensaas

Glitter, glamour and grapplers.

Sin City turns into pin city this weekend when the Cliff Keen Collegiate Wrestling Invitational gets underway at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Embedded in the 47 competing teams will be Minnesota, the two-time defending national champions.

But so far this season, the third-ranked Gophers (2-1) have been far from dominant. Following a season-opening loss to Iowa at the Xcel Energy Center on Nov. 15, the team went to Northern Illinois and won. However, the Gophers lacked the normal flare and enthusiasm connected to Minnesota wrestling the last few years.

“One of the problems you have is that some of the younger kids think just because they’re here they’re going to win,” said J Robinson, the Gophers’ coach for the last 17 seasons. “They don’t have that fight, that Minnesota mindset that once you’re on the mat, you’re going to dominate and be aggressive. They were just kind of hanging back, and we can’t have that.”

Of the 10 wrestlers competing in Las Vegas this weekend, six were not on the Gophers’ varsity roster last spring at the NCAA championships. They are Bobbe Lowe (125 pounds), Tommy Owen (141), Josh McLay (174), Casey Flaherty (184), Chad Mentel (197) and Jacob Liniger (HWT).

Part of the reason the six are wrestling is a need to fill spots left by graduation and injuries. Regardless, the inexperienced wrestlers must step up and fill the void admirably if Minnesota expects its winning ways to continue.

Robinson feels this weekend’s tournament is a perfect way to gauge where everyone stands.

The Invitational is similar to the NCAA tournament, with an individual champion at each weight and one overall team champion. Of the top 25 teams in the nation, 12 will be in action.

While some might say it’s too early in the season for such a pressing meet – Iowa has attended the Las Vegas Invitational only twice in the event’s 21-year history for that reason – Robinson feels it is a golden opportunity. Some of his top-notch wrestlers agree.

“The biggest thing we need to use this for is to let the country know what we’re all about,” defending 149-pound national champion Jared Lawrence said. “We plan to go in there, face some top-ranked guys and run them into the ground so they can see we’re not going to back down.”

The Gophers began to show some of the spunk Robinson was looking for last weekend in the team’s 46-4 thrashing of Virginia Tech. Eight of the nine match wins came with bonus points, three by pins.

Though the conference dual season is over a month away, the time is now for Minnesota to make a statement.

“We can send one of two messages with this meet,” Lawrence said. “We got beat (by Iowa) and we’re going to flip it around, or we lost and we haven’t rebounded back yet. We need to make sure it’s the first message.”

Missing links

Two injured wrestlers are not on the road to Las Vegas, but rather on the road to recovery this weekend.

After off-season knee surgery, 184-pounder Damion Hahn was finally allowed back on the mat Monday, sparring with lighter opponents in the wrestling room. He is making weight and is still scheduled to make his season debut Jan. 3 against top-ranked Oklahoma State.

Meanwhile, heavyweight Garrett Lowney also continues to progress well after shoulder surgery. Robinson said Lowney has resumed lifting weights and will be back on the mat next week.

Brian Stensaas covers wrestling and welcomes comments at [email protected]