CLEVELAND — For Gophers wrestlers Chad Kraft and Tim Hartung, the 1998 NCAA tournament signified an opportunity to realize a life-long dream. Since their beginnings, the pair of juniors have been viewed as natural pacesetters with a common fire for wrestling.
“Kraft and Hartung are out of the exact same mold,” Robinson said. “They’re two great captains.”
After they both finished third at NCAAs last year, Kraft (150 pounds) and Hartung (190 pounds) entered this year’s tournament ready to take the next step into the national finals.
As expected, the pair of juniors sailed through their first three rounds, scoring several team bonus points along the way. The final four wrestlers from each weight class remained, and the semifinal round positioned Kraft and Hartung in similar situations, opposite familiar Big Ten opponents.
The 150-pound semifinals pitted Kraft against Penn State’s Big Ten champion Clint Musser — a battle that seemed inevitable. After suffering two losses to Musser this season, the match lent Kraft another shot at his longtime rival. The Gophers’ two-time All-American took the mat with a vengeance, firing an explosive double-leg takedown in the first period to capture the lead and the momentum.
Fending off Musser’s offensive attempts for the remainder of the bout, Kraft earned a 3-2 victory and an inaugural trip to the 150-pound national finals. Gripping Musser with one hand and fate with the other, Kraft captured the chance to accomplish his goal.
“You have to take the opportunity when you get it,” Kraft said. “There are no givens that you’re going to get into that final. For me to have this opportunity as a junior is a huge factor in my career.”
Kraft had earned a ticket in, but his teammate’s battle remained. The 190-pound semifinals matched Hartung with Iowa’s returning national champion Lee Fullhart for the fourth time this season. Even though Minnesota’s sturdy veteran held a 2-1 series advantage, Fullhart broke onto the mat with confidence, controlling Hartung for nearly six minutes. From the onset, Hartung sensed he was in trouble.
“He scored right away and I was like, Oh boy, here we go.’ Then he got another one, and then another one. I was in a hole, and I wasn’t real confident at that point, but I just kept going.”
With 35 seconds to go, Hartung was down three points — in need of two takedowns to capture a win. In an unconventional move, the Gophers two-time Big Ten champion secured the first takedown and then cut Fullhart loose. Within seconds, he scored a second takedown to capture the 8-7 victory, vaulting him into the national finals. Stunned by the turn of events, Hartung described the match’s closing moments.
“It was a blur out there. I can hardly remember the last two minutes,” Hartung said. “I guess I didn’t really realize the whole scheme of this. We were all wet, and I didn’t think that I could hold him, so I had to cut him — and it worked out. I still can’t believe it.”
Sharing the spotlight
Prior to his own match, Hartung had seen Kraft’s win and resolved that he would not be left out of the excitement of the national finals.
“Chad drove me. I saw him win, and the crowd, he was so excited,” Hartung said. “I didn’t want to lose out on that. This is what we worked so hard for. I’m just glad it turned out the way that it did.”
Relieved to have won his own match, Kraft watched Hartung pull out a last-second victory to join him in the finals. The semifinals proved doubly gratifying for the Gophers’ middleweight.
“I was almost happier when he won than when I won my own match,” Kraft said. “We’ve been best friends ever since we got to Minnesota. For us to both be out there, it’s a great feeling.”
Holding a 5-0 series advantage over Illinois’ Eric Siebert made Kraft a sizable favorite for the 150-pound national crown. Meeting his opponent at center circle to start the match, Kraft appeared confident and poised, ready to battle any opponent.
Fifteen seconds later, an unexpected ankle injury sent Kraft to the mat, writhing in pain. While managing to ride out the match, Kraft’s title-winning campaign was over — snatched up in an instant. While Siebert was pronounced the winner and 150-pound national champion by a score of 7-3, even he understood Kraft’s circumstances.
“Obviously, he suffered a pretty good injury to his ankle and it definitely hindered his performance. You could see it; I could see it,” Siebert said. “He just wasn’t the same wrestler.”
The 190-pound finals loomed, and this time the enthusiasm would not carry over. After his fellow captain, Gophers teammate and best friend had suffered one of the biggest disappointments of his wrestling career, Hartung needed to revive Minnesota.
After three grueling periods and 40 seconds of sudden death overtime, Hartung defeated Edinboro’s previously undefeated Jason Robison 6-4 to clinch the national title and secure Minnesota’s second place team finish.
But even in victory, a bittersweet feeling remained within the Gophers wrestling family.
“I’m happy for Timmy and the team and everyone else, but I’m hurt because of Kraft,” Robinson said. “Here is a guy who has his whole dream in front of him and he doesn’t even get a chance to lose it; it’s just taken away from him.”
One dream realized, one cut short, Hartung and Kraft joined their teammates in accepting Minnesota’s first-ever second place team trophy. After the presentation, Hartung picked up his injured teammate and put him on his back — showing just how close victory and defeat can be.