U wrestlers begin era of their own

Sarah Mitchell

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Last week, Gophers senior Tim Hartung said the program’s veteran grapplers were destined to finish out their careers with Minnesota on top.
And after his team’s performance at the Big Ten wrestling championships in Ann Arbor, Mich., over the weekend, it appears as though the Gophers indeed control their own fate.
Minnesota began a new era on Sunday, ending No. 3 Iowa’s 25-year reign as conference champions. The Gophers earned the crown with 139 points, an 18-point advantage over the Hawkeyes, while qualifying nine members for the NCAA tournament.
“For me, I grew up in elementary school and junior high with the whole Iowa mentality,” said Gophers senior Bart Golyer, who became an NCAA qualifier for the first time with a fifth place finish at 133 pounds. “So to be a part of the team that took them down from the top, that’s a big piece of history.”
All 10 of the Gophers grapplers survived the first day of competition, with five in contention for an individual title, and all but one having earned an NCAA berth.
“Our team up and down the line-up is filled with a lot of heart and desire,” Gophers senior Tim Hartung said.
After striking success in their consolation bouts — 125-pound Leroy Vega won the battle for third, Golyer claimed a fifth-place finish and top-ranked 157-pound Chad Kraft finished strong in third place — the Gophers stalled in their first two championship matches.
Second-seeded Troy Marr couldn’t overcome history and pull an upset, losing to Iowa’s top-seeded T.J. Williams for the third time this season. In his first Big Ten finals appearance, Marr fell short at 8-3.
Senior Josh Holiday (165) dropped the team’s next title match. For the second time this season, Holiday was defeated by Wisconsin’s Don Pritzlaff, this time in overtime. Pritzlaff recorded a takedown 15 seconds into the first overtime period to win 3-1.
Despite two consecutive losses, Minnesota, a team dominant at the heavier weights, settled down and claimed the tournament’s final three title bouts. In his first Big Ten finals appearance, junior Brandon Eggum began the win spurt, edging out Penn State’s Ross Thatcher 6-3.
“I feel real excited,” the 184-pound Eggum said. “I felt pretty confident going in. I expected to win.”
Gophers senior Tim Hartung built onto Minnesota’s run. The 197-pounder claimed a school-record-setting third Big Ten title, defeating Iowa’s Lee Fullhart (No. 2) 2-1.
Newcomer Brock Lesnar (No. 2) completed the streak. The heavyweight, who hasn’t yet been with the team for a full season, trampled over Illinois’ Karl Roesler for the second time this season, this time 7-0.
After a scoreless first, Lesnar gained three points off a near-fall with time draining in the second. In the third, Lesnar took the step forward, even managing to injure Roesler for the third time in the pair’s short history. After making his way back to the mat with a bandage wrapped completely around his Carrot Top-esque head, Roesler was greeted with a double-leg takedown to end the match and the tournament.
“Last year we thought we could do it and this year we knew we would do it,” Eggum said of the Gophers first Big Ten title since 1959.
Amongst the success stories, however, there lies a disappointment. Only 141-pound Chad Erikson failed to qualify for the NCAAs, which begin in two weeks at Penn State. After pinning his first round opponent, Penn State’s Mark Bost, in 2:06, the freshman suffered a high ankle sprain in his quarterfinal match.
By the time his last bout began — a battle for seventh place and the last spot in the nationals — the injury prevented Erikson from applying full pressure and gave his opponents the advantage.
Two wild cards do exist for higher-ranked wrestlers who fail to qualify. But it was Hawkeyes heavyweight Wes Hand (No. 3), who finished eighth, and Illinois’ 184-pounder Nate Patrick, who also finished eighth, that were voted in by the Big Ten coaches.
“It all goes back to the Iowa dominance thing,” Gophers coach J Robinson said. “(Hand) didn’t wrestle well here and he didn’t want to wrestle here. Erikson got hurt and he battled back.”
Despite Erikson’s absence, the Gophers will continue their season at the national tournament in two weeks. Minnesota is looking to earn the program’s first NCAA title, and holding the conference title suddenly looks like the first — and biggest — step toward achieving that goal.
“It’s been a long time in coming, but it will help the sport as a whole,” Robinson said. “I guess it’s as big as everyone else will make it.”