Wrestling team snubs high ranking

by Sarah Mitchell

To most collegiate coaches, rankings — especially preseason polls — have no bearing on the season at stake. Other than attracting national attention, it’s merely a number, one that’s often inaccurate.
In a sport that possesses its own hard-core mentality, Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson has a not-so-typical view on Minnesota’s position. The Gophers are ranked No. 2 by Intermat, behind Oklahoma State, and No. 3 by Amateur Wrestling News, behind Oklahoma State and No. 2 Iowa.
Robinson said he prefers the lower ranking, although Intermat is the more respected of the two.
“I say we’re three. It’s better for us,” Robinson said. “Now there’s more pressure on the other two teams.”
Based on the 1997-98 season, Minnesota is nearing the pinnacle of success. Nine wrestlers qualified for the NCAA tournament with senior Tim Hartung claiming an individual title. The Gophers finished second overall at the NCAA Championships, the highest placing in program history and set a school record when six wrestlers were named All-Americans.
Although the season was dubbed the most successful in school history, Robinson said a new mentality is making the team stronger. In his 13th season with the Gophers, Robinson has not coached a more closely knit team.
“As a coach you continually sell the dream, but at some point in time the kids have to own it,” Robinson said.
As expected with a top team, many Gophers found themselves nationally ranked within their respective weight classes. Hartung is the wrestler to pin at 197 pounds while senior Chad Kraft took top honors at 157. Other notables include junior Brandon Eggum (No. 2 at 184), senior Josh Holiday (No. 4 at 165), junior Delaney Berger (No. 9 at 174) and seniors Pat Connors and Bart Golyer, who are both ranked No. 10 at 133.
Pushing these wrestlers to improve their standings is the No. 1 freshmen class in the country. For the second consecutive year, the Gophers recruiting class — Garrett Lowney, Luke Becker, Jared Lawrence, Jacob Clark, Mitch Marr — was labeled the nation’s strongest.
“Four of the kids have the potential, if they work this year, they could be All-Americans (next season),” Robinson said of the newcomers.
Like last year’s top-ranked class, the five newcomers have been redshirted for the upcoming season, allowing time for adjustment. But with two-a-day practices against one of the nation’s top teams, the incoming wrestlers are maturing quickly.
“They look like normal freshmen, taking the bumps and bruises,” Berger said. “There is no easy day here.”
Minnesota will play the role of predator on Saturday in the Bison Open in Fargo, N.D. Despite the lack of competition, mainly Division I and II teams, the season opener represents an opportunity to carry over last year’s intensity.
“Even though it might be a little baby tournament, a lot of guys have built up aggression,” Holiday said. “I just want to get out there and beat the hell out of people.”
After that, the level of competition swiftly increases as the team works to capture the national title. The Sooners loom early in the schedule, coming to town on Nov. 29. But by interpreting Robinson’s philosophy on rankings, the number preceding Oklahoma State’s name means nothing — yet.
“There’s only one time to be ranked,” Robinson said. “That’s at the end.”