U’s Duncombe makes the right move

Aaron Blake

Jon Duncombe graduated from Country Lane High School in St. Michael, Minn., burned out from wrestling and unsure what he was going to do with himself.

So he decided he might as well go to school. Then he decided he might as well wrestle while he was at it. And as long as he was wrestling, he might as well compete at the highest level.

Now the junior calls his decision to transfer to Minnesota from St. Cloud State before this season the “best thing I ever did.”

“I never intended to wrestle in college, really,” Duncombe said. “But I decided that if I was going to spend that much time, I wanted to go where I could be the best and be a part of a team that’s known for being the best.”

As it turns out, giving him the chance to wrestle at his customary weight could be one of the best things the Gophers coaches ever did, too.

A turning point

Duncombe, who came in planning to wrestle at 184 pounds but now holds the 174 spot, pointed his team in the right direction when it came to a crossroads a week and a half ago in Champaign, Ill.

The Gophers had lost three straight Big Ten matches and slipped to 15th in the polls prior to their Feb. 6 matchup with No. 3 Illinois. That night, they trailed 13-6 heading into the final four matches and needed an upset.

Duncombe, ranked 15th in the country at the time, grappled with No. 7 Pete Friedl for two periods and was trailing 4-3 after Friedl scored a takedown in the third.

But the former Husky turned Friedl over and pinned him with 42 seconds left, earning his team three crucial bonus points.

“I knew I could win, but I didn’t expect to pin that guy for sure,” said Duncombe, who was later named Big Ten Wrestler of the Week. “I remember coming off and saying, ‘I’ll take it,’ because it kind of fell into my lap. I pushed him, and he broke at the end.”

Duncombe’s third pin of the season brought Minnesota within a point at 13-12. Then the Gophers’ big men – Damion Hahn at 197 pounds and Cole Konrad at heavyweight – took care of business in their matches to give struggling Minnesota the 19-16 upset and a little something to smile about.

“That shut up the fans real quick,” 184-pounder Josh McLay said of Duncombe’s win. “It was pretty crazy. Everybody on the bench was on their feet.”

McLay said the team’s reaction wouldn’t have been so exaggerated had it been on its usual winning track.

After Sunday’s dramatic 18-15 comeback win over Iowa at Williams Arena, the Gophers are back on that track with three straight victories and a sense that they are getting closer to postseason form.

To wrestle or not Ö

Everything Duncombe has accomplished thus far and could achieve in the future at Minnesota could have been for naught.

About two weeks before his freshman year at St. Cloud State, Duncombe changed his mind about wrestling in college and accepted a scholarship from the Division II Huskies.

He was an All-American both seasons in St. Cloud, and was runner-up to Nebraska-Kearney’s Frank Kuchera at the NCAA championships last season.

Duncombe touched base with Minnesota assistant coach Marty Morgan this summer, watched a Gophers practice and decided he wanted a chance to be on one of college wrestling’s grander stages.

But then he hesitated.

“I actually went back and forth,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to come, because I was going to be ranked No. 1 in Division II. So it was pretty hard to pick up and leave.”

Once again, Duncombe decided a couple weeks before school began that he wanted to pursue a wrestling career.

An hour’s trip southeast on Interstate 94 later, he was all set to be the Gophers’ 184-pound starter.

Carving out his niches

Coming to Minnesota was a compromise for Duncombe, who had found Division II success at 174 pounds but looked to fill a hole at 184 for Minnesota.

McLay, also a junior, was pegged to return as the team’s 174-pound starter. But things changed early this season.

After three tournaments at their expected weight classes, the two switched for the Gophers’ first duel versus Iowa State on Dec. 12. Ever since Duncombe’s 13-3 major decision over the Cyclones’ Nels Matson that evening, the 174-pound spot has been his to lose.

Minnesota coach J Robinson said the current 174/184 situation is what’s best for the team, and McLay is happy to step out of his comfort zone in that case.

On Sunday, Robinson declared McLay “the guy” for his 2-1 upset win over Iowa’s 12th-ranked Paul Bradley.

But McLay has taken some time to adjust to the new weight class, learning to change his offensive strategy for bigger foes.

Duncombe, on the other hand, has found himself in several vital matches at 174 pounds. And more often than not, he has delivered.

Robinson noted that the Illinois match wasn’t the only duel where Duncombe has made the difference for his team.

Earlier this year, Duncombe found himself in the decisive final match of a duel twice in one day.

Against Arizona State on New Year’s Day, he scored a 10-4 decision on the Sun Devils’ Ron Renzi to save the match for his team in a 20-15 victory.

Later that day, he earned a 17-6 major decision on Nebraska’s James Pummel, and the bonus point gave Minnesota a 17-16 victory over the second-ranked Cornhuskers.

Overall, several of Duncombe’s nine duel victories have come in toss-up matches.

“In a lot of those matches, he wasn’t expected to win,” Robinson said. “That’s the difference in making a difference. When you just win, and you’re supposed to win, you’re not making a difference.”

And thanks to a couple of last minute decisions on his part, Duncombe is making that difference for the Gophers by providing them with some important decisions of their own.