Nagel looking to end career how it started: As a champion

David McCoy

Matt Nagel remembers the sights, the sounds, the smell and the sweat.

He remembers the cheers, the boos and the fact that both were drowned out amid the thrill and the joy of Minnesota’s wrestling team winning its second straight national championship.

Those memories now are four years old.

Nagel witnessed that day through the eyes of a freshman redshirt.

He didn’t wrestle. But what he saw four years ago he still recalls vividly.

“It was probably one of the most amazing things ever to watch ” Luke Becker and Jared Lawrence go back to back and win national titles and then the team wins it,” Nagel said. “There was well over 1,000 people in one section. And after every Minnesota guy won, they were just screaming and yelling ” the whole row ” and you could just look up and there was just (Minnesota) people on their feet and nobody else was up in the whole building.”

Out of all 27 wrestlers on this year’s team, Nagel is the only one who owns those memories.

As the team’s lone senior, Nagel is the only one who feels the pleasure of those flashbacks, but also the disappointment of never having experienced those feelings again.

“It was really motivating for me, but at the same time, I was like, “Wow, there’s a lot of expectation too,’ ” Nagel said. “At that time, I had no idea that it was going to be that difficult. It was kind of like, “Oh, yes, I get to be this next year.’ But I didn’t have any idea what it took. Now I do.”

That was the 2001-2002 season, Minnesota’s last national title and also its last undefeated season. It was also Nagel’s first.

This season has mirrored that one so far, as the top-ranked Gophers (16-0) have rolled over all competition thus far.

But this time around, Nagel is a key element. No sitting on the bench, no relying on others, no future. Senior season: the last shot to do it again.

“Actually, last night, to be honest, was really the first time I really started to take it in that I’m not going to be a part of this group anymore,” Nagel said. “I mean, I’m still going to be around them, but I won’t be in that tight-knit loop that we have right now and it’s kind of hitting me like, “Oh man, this is it.’ I think it’s just a gradual process, and the farther and farther I get to the end, the more and more you start feeling it.”

After playing host to Wisconsin on Friday night, Sunday’s dual against Indiana will be his last home meet.

It will be a bittersweet moment for Nagel and his teammates.

“You need more of those (guys like Nagel) on the team,” sophomore Mitch Kuhlman said. “He’s just someone you want to be when you’re older. You want to be exactly like him because he works hard and he pushes himself.”

Nagel has been pushing himself in a different way lately ” out of necessity.

After starting the season by beating defending national champion Johnny Hendricks at the All-Star Classic, Nagel hit a slump ” losing four in a row at one point. Other times he won, but allowed them to be much closer than they should have been.

Again against Hendricks at National Duals on Jan. 15, Nagel hit rock bottom. He lost to Hendricks 8-3 in decisive fashion.

Then Nagel went back to work. He had special drilling sessions with coach J Robinson in practice and looked at tapes of his matches last season in an effort to rediscover his former style. He now believes he has found it once again, and using the things that worked for him last season, he has found a new groove.

Nagel hasn’t lost since, his matches getting more decisive with each passing dual. Friday night at Ohio State, Nagel used three second-period takedowns to major Nathaniel Augustson 12-4. Sunday at Penn State, Nagel’s pin of 15th-ranked David Erwin only 50 seconds into the match gave the Gophers a huge spark.

“I’ve seen him pick up his offense a lot more on his feet,” 125-pounder Travis Lang said. “And he’s moved forward a lot and he’s just getting in guys’ faces a lot more. He sees the end of the year coming close, and it’s his last year, and he’s got that fire. And I hope he keeps it up.”

Nagel said he doubted it at the beginning of the season, but now believes the Gophers can keep it up all the way until the group has a championship to call its own. Those memories of 2001-2002 are looking more and more like the future.

“I don’t think I could be in a better situation, this being my senior year and having things going the way they have been,” Nagel said. “It’s really neat because I have visions of seeing us doing that this year, and having all that excitement like they did back when I was a redshirt. And I know that it can happen.”

He’s come full circle. But it would all be worth it for another national title.

“Becker came into the room the other day and he told me that being a national champion or being on a national championship team will change your life forever,” Nagel said. “And now I can realize, “Wow, if this does happen, it will be something special I can hang on to for the rest of my life.’ “