Liam James Doyle, Daily File Photo
The Gophers wrestling team will get a much-needed boost in the lower weights with the return of two starters from suspension.
Ethan Lizak, who wrestles at 125 pounds, and 141-pound Tommy Thorn were part of a group of four wrestlers suspended earlier this season for an unspecified violation of team rules.
They were cleared to return on Jan. 1, and immediately saw action at the Southern Scuffle tournament in Tennessee.
“From a team standpoint, it makes a huge difference,” said head coach Brandon Eggum. “We’re excited to have them in the lineup.”
The Gophers can use their help.
In their absence, Minnesota went just 31-30 in the two weight classes combined and just 1-9 against ranked opponents.
In order for Minnesota to contend with the likes of No. 4 Ohio State and No. 3 Iowa — both of who lurk on the Gophers schedule — more production is needed from the lower weights.
Both wrestlers are nationally ranked in their weight class, with Lizak at No. 6 and Thorn at No. 13.
The Gophers have struggled against Big Ten opponents from 157 pounds and below, and hold an 8-12 record. Adding two top-15 wrestlers should help Minnesota compete at a high level.
“They can beat anybody in the country,” Eggum said. “The expectation is those guys go out and find a way to win, that’s one of the changes [at 125 and 141].”
Lizak made a statement in his first action on the mat after the suspension. In five Southern Scuffle matches, he earned four major decisions and a technical fall to win the title at 125 pounds.
The title earned Lizak Big Ten Co-Wrestler of the Week honors on Jan. 3.
The victories could be key for the redshirt sophomore moving forward, giving him something to capitalize on heading into the Big Ten gauntlet.
“It’s huge,” Lizak said. “It’s just momentum … I can build on that and keep getting better.”
Thorn also wrestled well in the Scuffle and won his first four matches. He kept Oklahoma State’s No. 1 Dean Heil close and fell in just a 2-1 decision.
“I know I can wrestle with [Heil],” Thorn said. “That’s never been a question in my mind … going forward, it’s just figuring out how to score more points in those matches.”
Minnesota’s regular conference season schedule features four teams ranked in the top five in the nation.
“The Big Ten is by far the toughest [conference],” Eggum said. “Our home schedule is brutal, but it’s a great opportunity for our guys to compete against the best guys, and be prepared.”
While the Big Ten certainly presents an array of challenges, the Gophers aren’t happy with just conference success — Thorn and Lizak hold much bigger aspirations.
“If you’re on the Gophers team, your goal is to be a national champion,” Thorn said. “I’ve wrestled pretty much everyone in my weight class, and I know if I’m on my game, I can beat them.”