Wrestlers win early battle of top teams

Anthony Maggio

Minnesota’s wrestling squad entered Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla., with a statement in mind for the wrestling world. After downing the second-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys 21-12, the defending national champion’s message was loud and clear.

“We showed that we’re number one,” 157-pound Luke Becker said. “And we deserve to be.”

The Gophers silenced one of the most hostile crowds in college wrestling just two matches into the meet.

In the first match, second-ranked Leroy Vega was upset by fifth-ranked Skylar Holman in a 6-4 decision. The crowd voiced its approval as the Cowboys took an early 3-0 lead with top-ranked Johnny Thompson up next.

“They were feeling pretty good after they beat Vega,” coach J Robinson said. “They’re figuring they are going to be up 6-0, then all of a sudden they’re down 6-3.”

After nearly being pinned early in the first period, junior Ryan Lewis came back from a five-point deficit to pin Thompson, the top-ranked grappler in the 133-pound weight class, with nine seconds remaining in the match.

Lewis’ victory quieted the crowd and established momentum for the Gophers.

“We were a little down,” Becker said. “But Lewis just forgot about it and went out there and wrestled his match and got us right back into it. That was a really big up for us.”

Chad Erikson and Jared Lawrence followed with decisions of their own, with Lawrence coming from behind to win 7-6.

Then Becker easily disposed of second-ranked Shane Roller, who defeated him at nationals last year, by a 13-6 score.

“I wanted to get a little payback from last year at nationals,” Becker said.

Junior John Hardy followed Becker with a narrow loss to third-ranked Tyrone Lewis, putting the team score at 15-6.

Jacob Volkmann then defeated Ty Wilcox in sudden death overtime, and Owen Elzen sealed the match with a win over Willie Gruenwald at 197 pounds.

Along with Vega, fourth-ranked heavyweight Garrett Lowney suffered an upset. Thirteenth-ranked James Huml beat Lowney in a 4-2 decision.

“Any time you have one against two there is always upsets,” Robinson said. “It’s a situation where there’s a lot of emotion going on both sides.”

Oklahoma State head coach John Smith attributed the loss to a lack of match conditioning.

“We looked like a team that might have needed a couple tough matches,” Smith told KSPI Radio in Stillwater. “I don’t think the two duals we had prepared us for this kind of battle.”

Pat Popolizio, who upset Damion Hahn at 184 pounds with a 2-1 decision, wasn’t happy with his squad’s performance.

“It was embarrassing,” Popolizio told KSPI, “but a good lesson learned.”

Lessons were learned on both sides as Robinson saw weaknesses in his team which need fixing. Robinson thought his squad could have won every match if his athletes would have wrestled better. None of the Gophers losses were by more than two points.

“Any time you can come away beating the number two team pretty decisively you’ve got to feel good about it,” Robinson said. “But we can’t be satisfied. We’ve got to go away with the idea that we still have a lot of work to do to get where we want to be.”