Wrestlers ready for opponents’ best efforts

Anthony Maggio

This weekend marks a new beginning for Minnesota’s wrestling team. Yet things seem a lot like last year.

The only difference this season is the national champion name it’s carrying.

“Every team is gunning for us and every team is going to wrestle its hardest against us,” senior Leroy Vega said. “But they will always be scared in their mind.”

Minnesota won the national championship last season despite having no individual national champion. Vega (125 pounds), Garrett Lowney (heavyweight), and Owen Elzen (197 pounds) all tallied third-place finishes.

The lack of an individual national champion last season is the biggest motivation for this year’s squad.

“One of the main things we emphasize will be individual finalists this year,” coach J Robinson said. “We’ve got eight All-Americans, we want to get eight guys to the finals. So that’s our goal. If we do that, then the title will take care of itself.”

On Saturday, the Gophers will compete in the Bison Open in Fargo, N.D. Mostly Division II and III schools attend the meet, so most of Minnesota’s competition will come from within the team.

Robinson is using this meet to evaluate his wrestlers and solidify spots in the lineup.

Vega, along with the returning All-Americans, already has his spot, and has a chance to become only the second four-time All-American at Minnesota.

Last season’s second-place finisher at 125 pounds graduated, which leaves Vega and defending national champion Stephen Abas from Fresno State as the top two returning wrestlers at their weight class. Vega already has his sights set.

“Hopefully come March I’m wrestling Abas in the finals,” Vega said.

Lowney’s expectations are also high, but he will have stiff competition in the heavyweight division.

“Heavyweight on paper is a very tough weight,” Lowney said.

And that’s putting it lightly. All eight All-Americans from last year are returning.

But Lowney gave up going to World Championships this year to concentrate on collegiate-style wrestling.

“I’m really working hard, really becoming more of a student this year than I was last year when it comes to my style wrestling and what I need to do,” Lowney said. “I’m changing a few things and really doing well, so I’m really looking forward to this year.”

The other returning All-Americans are Chad Erikson (141), Jared Lawrence (149), Luke Becker (157), Jacob Volkmann (174), and Damion Hahn (184).

Minnesota lost Brett Lawrence (133) and Brad Pike (165) to graduation but has plenty of competition at those weights.

The defending national champions are now marked men, and can expect top performances from their opponents.

“You always have a target, but we don’t care,” Robinson said.

Before last season, Robinson thought his team had a target because they couldn’t get over the hump.

“It’s better to be the champions and have a target on your back than to be second and have a target on your back,” he said.

Robinson is not worried his team will be overconfident. Because they fell short of their individual goals, Robinson said his athletes are hungry.

“You can see it manifested in this team, the way they carry themselves, the way they talk ñ they have this air of confidence they didn’t have last year,” Robinson said. “Now they get to put that in play, that’s what’s exciting.”

Anthony Maggio welcomes comments at [email protected]