Second-place NCAA finish best ever for wrestlers

Allison Younge

CLEVELAND — Before Gophers junior Tim Hartung could emerge as Minnesota’s newest national champion, he had a few things to ponder. The junior’s mounting pressures included:
ù facing Edinboro’s top-seeded, undefeated senior Jason Robison for the first time, in his first-ever national finals appearance;
ù The Gophers’ second-place team finish hinged on his victory. If he didn’t win, the team would have placed third — the same as last year;
ù His teammate and best friend Chad Kraft had just suffered a severe ankle injury and lost his finals match. Morale was running low;
ù He was the Gophers’ last chance this season to break Minnesota’s six-year NCAA champion drought.
But even with the weight of his match, his teammates, his coaches, the season and Gophers wrestling history on his shoulders, Hartung won it all — in sudden death overtime, by a score of 6-4.
After the match, Minnesota’s clutch man revealed his stress management technique — denial.
“There wasn’t any extra pressure,” Hartung said. “The coaches just told me to worry about myself and it would help the team. I really wasn’t thinking about it at all, but it’s great to have a double victory like that.”
Even though Iowa’s 115 team points were more than enough to clinch the national title, Minnesota’s 102 points earned the team runner-up honors for the first time in Gophers history. In addition, Minnesota succeeded in topping pre-tournament favorite Oklahoma State, which finished third with 99.5 team points.
The Hawkeyes led all teams by capturing three individual titles en route to No. 1, but each of the tournament’s top three contenders crowned six All-Americans.
Finishing in the top eight in their weight classes for the Gophers were Brandon Paulson (7th at 118 pounds), Jason Davids (4th at 142 pounds), Chad Kraft (2nd at 150 pounds), Brandon Eggum (5th at 177 pounds), Hartung (1st at 190 pounds) and Shelton Benjamin (3rd at heavyweight).
Minnesota coach J Robinson was pleased with the number of individual honors and the level of team success that the Gophers achieved. He saw the recognition as results of the team’s practiced attitude.
“For years our goals were to try to win the Big Ten and national tournament,” Robinson said, “but you need to have goals that you can control. The thing that we can control is to be aggressive and dominating.
“If we are aggressive and dominating, everything else takes care of itself. You get what you want, but you focus on what you can control. I think that made a difference.”
The difference appeared in the number of bonus points Minnesota received after several Gophers downed their opponents by pin, technical fall or major decision. After losing his first round match in a 2-2 tiebreaker, Eggum recovered to win his next three matches — one by decision, a second by major decision and a third by technical fall — on that same day.
Recharged with enthusiasm, Eggum wrestled back to capture some honor of his own.
“I was disappointed after losing in that first round,” Eggum said. “But I knew that the team needed me to come back. That’s one thing that really kept me going hard. I wanted to be an All-American, but I saw how hard my teammates were working and I didn’t want to let them down.”
Eggum’s second chance led to a solid fifth-place finish, but three Gophers met with disappointing results in the tournament’s early rounds. Josh Holiday (158 pounds), Troy Marr (134 pounds) and Zac Taylor (167 pounds) fell out of the consolation bracket on Friday morning, during only the second of six tournament sessions.
Although these competitors did not achieve individual glory at this year’s tournament, Minnesota’s end result was nothing less than a total team effort. Every member of the Gophers’ nine-man lineup won at least one match that contributed points to Minnesota’s second-place finish.
Kraft and Davids were downed in their final bouts this season, but the Gophers nationally-acclaimed middleweights both earned All-American honors for the third consecutive year. After suffering a severe ankle injury in the first period of the 150-pound finals, Kraft was downed by Illinois’ Eric Siebert by a score of 7-3 to place second.
Davids fell a step short of the finals, losing to Iowa’s Jeff McGinness in the 142-pound semifinals by a score of 8-4. McGinness advanced to capture his second national title, while Davids was pinned by Oregon State’s Oscar Wood in 2:46 to finish fourth. Davids wrestled out of character in his final match, but the Gophers’ highly successful senior recorded two pins and a major decision during the tournament.
Seniors Paulson and Benjamin also managed to cap off their college careers in impressive fashion. Wrestling in only his second official weekend of competition this season, Paulson put together a 5-2 performance to become an All-American for the first time in his career.
Benjamin’s only loss on the way to his third-place finish came against Lehigh’s Bill Closson in the quarterfinals. Following the match, the Gophers heavyweight advanced through the consolation rounds while Closson lost in the semifinals. The sudden rivals met for a rematch in the third-place bout and Benjamin captured a 5-2 victory.
Benjamin was still upset with his earlier performance against Closson, but Minnesota’s heavyweight finished his career on a satisfying note.
“It shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” Benjamin said, “but it was gratifying to come back and beat him.”
Highs and lows were experienced every day of the national tournament, individually and collectively, but Minnesota kept moving forward. Following his match, the Gophers’ national champion shifted the spotlight to the Minnesota wrestlers of the future.
“We’re taking steps,” Hartung said. “The things we’ve done here are great steps for the program and there are only going to better things in the future, I am sure of it.”