U grapplers face Cowboys in top-ranked showdown

by Anthony Maggio

Sunday is only the second dual meet of the season for No. 1 Minnesota’s wrestling squad, but the defending national champions want to show their peak form.

The Gophers face second-ranked Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., in an early-season showcase of two national powers.

“It’s going to be good for us to show the other teams that we’re for real,” senior Leroy Vega said. “We want to win this thing. We want to dominate.”

Last weekend the Gophers dominated then-No. 21 Boise State in a 42-0 landslide. But the competition on Sunday improves significantly.

Seven of Oklahoma State’s 10 wrestlers are nationally ranked, with four grapplers in the top five of their weight class.

Minnesota and the Cowboys split dual meets last season, with Oklahoma State winning at Minnesota and the Gophers prevailing at National Duals at Penn State. In the first meet, Minnesota was without three starters and lost by a slim eight-point margin.

The Gophers are favored in seven of the 10 matches, but coach J Robinson expects perfection.

“If our attitude is right, these teams are not evenly matched at all; we should win every weight,” Robinson said. “But if we let them stay in the game it will be a close match.”

The grapplers faced with the toughest challenges are Ryan Lewis at 133 pounds, Luke Becker at 157 and John Hardy at 165.

Lewis, ranked fourth in the nation, faces No. 1 Johnny Thompson.

Becker, ranked third, faces the second-ranked Shane Roller. Becker defeated Roller twice last season, but lost to him at the NCAA Championships.

Hardy is ranked eighth, and faces third-ranked sophomore Tyrone Lewis. Hardy is 12-1 on the season. Lewis wrestled in the 174-pound weight class last season and notched victories versus the Gophers in both dual meets last season.

Still, Robinson expects victories at every weight class.

“That’s the kind of statement we want to make not only to Oklahoma State, but to the rest of the wrestling people,” Robinson said. “Last year wasn’t a fluke, we’re here for real and these eight All-Americans are legit.”

The wrestlers also hope to get more attention by bringing a victory back from Stillwater – not exactly an easy task. The Gophers last win at Oklahoma State in Jan. 2000 snapped a 73-meet Cowboys unbeaten streak.

“(This meet) kind of sets the pace for the rest of the year,” heavyweight Garrett Lowney said. “It gets the fans into it real early and gets people excited about the season.”

Before Minnesota can worry about its own supporters, however, they must endure a harsh welcome from fans at Oklahoma State.

Cowboy wrestling fans are known for their loud, obnoxious and rowdy behavior.

“They usually have big crowds that are right on top of you and yelling derogatory things at you,” assistant coach Joe Russell said. “But that’s the kind of environment our guys need to get used to and be able to be successful in as well.”

Sophomore Damion Hahn added, “They’re crazy down there.”

Robinson also said the officiating is notorious at Oklahoma State, so he doesn’t expect to get any good calls.

Regardless, the Gophers must focus on the task at hand if they want to validate their number one ranking. Robinson knows his wrestlers won’t be given respect. They must earn it.

“It will be good for us to wrestle with some adversity,” Robinson said. “That’s important for our guys too, to realize that just because you’re the national champions, guys aren’t just going to give it to you.”

With this in mind, the wrestlers are prepared for a hostile environment, and are poised to silence critics in Stillwater and across the nation.

“We’re going in there and going to lay it all on the line,” Hahn said. “This is for bragging rights.”