Wrestlers fall back into Big Ten pack

Brian Stensaas

As the minutes ticked away during last weekend’s dual match with Michigan State, members of Minnesota’s fourth-ranked wrestling team truly looked bored.

Some slouched, others yawned. Even the fans weren’t too alert, twice needing public address announcer Jamie Verbrugge’s encouragement to cheer on a wrestler down in points.

When all was said and done, the Gophers posted a 22-16 victory over the Spartans. The six-point margin was a far cry from last Jan. 27, when Minnesota went into East Lansing and shut out Michigan State 37-0.

Still, the Gophers are used to winning.

This year is different, however. Gone are the days of 10 All-Americans rolling to 20-plus point win margins. The Gophers are just like everyone else in the Big Ten. They enter every match with more than a few hanging question marks.

This weekend’s matches at Penn State and Ohio State will be no different.

“It’s rare to have all 10 guys so well off,” senior 149-pounder Jared Lawrence said of years past. “Normally, teams have adversity, where some guys aren’t so solid. You just have to understand that’s how it is.”

Up until the National Duals two weeks ago, the team experienced only one single-digit dual win margin since a one-point win over Iowa to close out the 2000-01 season.

But in a span of seven days, Minnesota limped to a five-point win over No. 6 West Virginia and the six-point win over the No. 15 Spartans.

Assistant coach Marty Morgan downplayed the close margin Saturday night saying, “We’re going to have ups and downs. We understand that duals are really insignificant.”

Head coach J Robinson agrees with Morgan to an extent but believes that dual meets can’t be overlooked.

“Dual meets are just little steps along the way to see where you are,” he said. “But it all comes down to the tournament, and there’s stories of guys going to the national tournament with a losing record and then winning the thing.”

On the other end of the domination spectrum lie coaches like Russ Hellickson. In 33 years of Big Ten wrestling – from his days as a Wisconsin grappler to headman for the Buckeyes – Hellickson has never been a part of a Big Ten team title.

Hellickson sees teams like Minnesota coming back down the ladder as a positive for the conference.

“The playing field is more level this way,” said Hellickson, who does have an Olympic silver medal to his credit, taking second in the 1976 Montreal Games. “Teams who haven’t been that productive over the years are coming into their own.”

In last year’s conference tournament, five of the 11 schools produced a Big Ten Champion. And while teams like Minnesota and Iowa remain the top dogs – the Hawkeyes won 25 straight Big Ten team titles from 1974-98 – currently seven schools in the conference are ranked in the top 25.

“Close duals do good for everything,” Robinson said. “It’s good for the fans, good for recruiting, attendance numbers. It tells people how important teams are in the Big Ten.”

Perhaps a wake-up call for some.

Weekend logistics

Despite winning his first match at 184 against Michigan State, freshman Matt Nagel will wrestle at 174 this weekend against Penn State and Ohio State.

Sophomore Josh McLay will bump up to 184 for the duals.

Meanwhile, as of Wednesday afternoon, junior Damion Hahn was not listed on Minnesota’s weekend travel list. The 197-pounder is currently ineligible pending an academic situation. The coaching staff hopes to have him cleared to wrestle for the weekend and could take a later flight.