There are no visions of spring when entering the humid, sweaty, stale-aired confines of the wrestling practice room in the basement of the Bierman Athletic Building — but there was a certain freshness about the Gophers this week.
No. 3 Minnesota dispelled its midseason slump last Sunday in a dominating 28-7 win over fourth-ranked Penn State, and the Gophers appear revitalized.
“A lot of teams are burning out and fading away at this point in the season,” assistant coach Marty Morgan said. “Last week’s match proves that we are still stepping up and improving.”
Gophers coach J Robinson decided to mix-up Minnesota’s regular practice routine this week before its two-match weekend against No. 11 Michigan and No. 15 Michigan State. He wanted to give the team some individual freedom and a much needed mental break.
Instead of running two tough conditioning practices at 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., Robinson let the team members decide their own practice times and gave them the opportunity to work on perfecting individual moves.
“The amount of work was the same. I just wanted to take a different approach this week,” Robinson said. “The team needs to start developing intensity inside themselves. They need to work hard on their own, not just when they’re pressured from coaches.”
Minnesota is set to meet Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., on Saturday and then travel to Ann Arbor to face the Wolverines on Sunday. Minnesota should defeat both teams, but the Gophers aren’t about to overlook anyone.
“Every guy on this team knows how important these matches are in the Big Ten seedings,” Morgan said. “They need to keep in step in order to peak at the right time.”
Competitive burnout is a reality to many teams with the rigid practice routines and match schedules that Division I athletics demand. With three weeks until the Big Ten Tournament, it’s important the Gophers remain focused and continue to improve.
“It’s really tough sometimes,” said sophomore 150-pounder Chad Kraft. “You get sore and tired and have to mentally push yourself to get going — it’s this part of the season that separates the good teams from the bad.”
Kraft, ranked No. 4, enjoyed the unconventional practice week that allowed him to prepare for Sunday’s battle against Michigan’s third-ranked Bill Lacure.
“I’m looking forward to wrestling Lacure,” Kraft said. “If I focus on myself, and fully use my ability, I will come out on top.”
The featured match against Michigan State will come at 190 pounds. No. 3 Tim Hartung will meet No. 4 Brian Picklo for the second time this season. In the consolation match of the National Duals, Hartung downed Picklo 1-0 in sudden death overtime. Minnesota went on to beat the Spartans, 28-9.
Saturday, Hartung (23-0) will get a shot at the No. 1 rank. Picklo defeated Oklahoma’s No. 1 John Kading last weekend, making Hartung the only undefeated wrestler left at 190 pounds. A win could put Hartung in a prime seeding position for Big Tens.
“I can’t worry about the rankings,” Hartung said. “I just have to be concerned with myself, wrestle one match at a time and do my best.”
Hartung’s collected mentality represents the entire team’s feeling lately. The Gophers aspire to enter Big Tens with the freshness of newcomers, the technique of veterans, and the determination of champions. This weekend offers two more vital steps upward, and Morgan is confident that Minnesota is primed.
“The team is at a point where they’re looking good and feeling good,” Morgan said. “They’re big and strong and ready to go.”
Note: Robinson announced that sophomore Pat Connors has earned the starting position at 126 pounds for the remainder of the season. Last Sunday, Connors upset Penn State’s 10th-ranked Jason Betz, 6-4.
“I feel a lot more confident knowing that I have the spot,” Connors said. “Now I can focus completely on what I have to do to win.”