Wrestlers set to open Big Ten competition

Aaron Blake

Wrestling without both senior national champion 197-pounder Damion Hahn and 165-pound senior All-American Jacob Volkmann at last weekend’s National Duals in Cleveland, Ohio, was indicative of just how physically challenging the sport can be.

And this is just beginning for Minnesota’s 12th-ranked wrestling team – sort of.

As the Gophers travel to the Wolverine State to battle both Michigan State and Michigan this weekend, the season reaches both a midway and a turning point. Friday’s match against the 24th-ranked Spartans begins the Big Ten season, and Saturday’s match pits Minnesota against the same fifth-ranked Wolverines that dominated the Gophers 30-6 in Cleveland.

“These guys are competing and making weight every week,” Minnesota assistant coach Mark Schwab said. “This is where guys – historically in college wrestling – go one direction or they go the other. It happens that way. We’re just trying to get our guys to go in the right direction.”

A 6-3 dual mark and a seventh-place finish at National Duals are both below par for a Minnesota program that hasn’t placed below third at the NCAA Championships since 1995-96. As the team tries to recover, several aspects make this weekend’s matches more important.

First, Schwab noted that conference duals translate to conference tournament seeding. The Gophers have won three consecutive Big Ten titles, but Saturday’s blowout loss to Michigan shows just how prepared other teams are to capitalize on a possible down year for Minnesota.

Saturday’s match against the Wolverines is the second factor making this weekend so important. Schwab said if his team prepares more for either of this weekend’s opponents, it’s got to be Michigan.

And the wrestlers agree.

“There were a lot of close matches that could have gone either way (against the Wolverines),” sophomore 157-pounder Matt Nagel said. “Now we’re going to get another shot at them, and we’ll be ready to go.

“If we’re really on the ball, it can be a totally different score.”

The third reason this weekend’s matches are so pivotal for Minnesota wrestling is what Schwab calls the after-winter break “grind.”

Last weekend began a six-week period where the Gophers do battle every weekend without rest.

With Volkmann out for another couple weeks and Hahn banged up but ready to go, the grind just became a little tougher.

“The season’s getting real long right now,” junior 174-pounder Jon Duncombe said. “Everyone hits those points, and I guess we hit a pothole. We’ve just got to climb out and keep moving.”

Filling out the bout sheet

Schwab said junior Casey Flaherty will take Volkmann’s place again this weekend. Flaherty went 1-4 last weekend in his first dual action of the season. Volkmann is nursing an eye socket injury.

In addition, true freshman Jeremy Anderson is slated to start at 149 for the second straight weekend as well. Anderson replaced junior Keri Stanley at National Duals after Stanley went 0-3 in the weeks before.