Wrestlers top short list of NCAA title contenders

Sarah Mitchell

The apparent fall of the Iowa wrestling dynasty and a runner-up finish at the Big 12 tournament by No. 1 Oklahoma State has brought other teams into contention for the NCAA team title this weekend at State College, Penn.
And Minnesota is on top of that very short list.
On Mar. 5, No. 5 Oklahoma erased Oklahoma State’s unbeatable image, upsetting the shorthanded Cowboys (157 pounder Jimmy Arias was sidelined with injury) for the league crown by 6.5 points. Although the Sooners were praised by other Big 12 coaches, their own coach wasn’t sold on the possibility of an upset at the NCAAs.
“I don’t think it really throws us into the mix,” Sooners coach Jack Spates said. “I think what it does do, though, is motivate our guys. They’re very enthused about working out and they’re very excited about going to the national tournament.
“As a coach, to see your guys excited at this time of the year, right before the national tournament, and you see that fire in their eyes, you always think they’re going to go out there and wrestle their hardest. We’re definitely the dark horse, but we like where we stand,” Spates added.
En route to their first conference title since 1986, the Sooners qualified 10 wrestlers for the national tournament. Because the NCAA team title is based solely on individual performances, Oklahoma looks to have an edge.
The Sooners, however, are ranked seventh in Intermat magazine’s top 15 tournament poll. Behind an undefeated conference season and its first Big Ten tournament win since 1959, Minnesota earned the top ranking.
“Even to me people say, ‘Why aren’t you smiling, jumping up and down?'” Gophers coach J Robinson said. “Because it’s really not over yet. It’s just a step to get us closer to where we want to go. I think we know where we want to go. I think we have known what we have to do. We’re going to try to stick to our game plan, things we can control. That’s been our fortÇ for the last three years.”
Over the past two seasons, Minnesota fell short of the team title, but still exceeded the program’s past. The 1998 Gophers surpassed their 1997 third-place finish, claiming the silver and rewriting team history.
Looking to continue this upward moving trend, Minnesota enters the tournament represented in nine weight classes (the Gophers did not qualify at 141 pounds).
This season, Minnesota’s NCAA lineup includes three 1999 Big Ten champions (Brandon Eggum at 184 pounds, Tim Hartung at 197, and heavyweight Brock Lesnar).
The heavyweight and 197 pound contests are fairly predictable. The second-ranked Lesnar is a good bet to encounter Cal State-Bakersfield’s unbeaten Stephen Neal in the finals.
Although no history exists between Lesnar and Neal, Hartung’s forecasted final bout opponent — Iowa’s Lee Fullhart — will be seeking revenge for a season of defeats.
The top-ranked Gophers grappler and reigning national champion looks to have one farewell match with Fullhart, holder of the 1997 national championship. Since an NCAA semifinal loss to Hartung last season, Fullhart has not spoken to the media and has barely acknowledged the Hawkeyes coaching staff.
Hartung has owned Fullhart this season, slipping past the Hawkeye in all three meetings and giving Fullhart no reason to break the silence.
“He’s acting about the same as he always has. Those guys have been going at it for a long time,” Hawkeyes coach Jim Zalesky said. “Hartung has been attacking a little more than he has, (Hartung) has kind of made his moves. When you get two guys like that, whoever sets the pace is going to win the match. When it comes to a crucial time, Hartung is usually the one taking the shot.”
At the tournament this weekend, unknown wrestlers plan to take Hartung-esque shots with hopes of filling the brackets with upsets. Behind this motivation, a surprise team might even capture the team title.
“This is where you can erase all the bad matches you’ve had in the past as individuals, and as a team this is where you can step it up,” Zalesky said. “This is where you are going to feel good or bad.”