National title on the mind of wrestlers

The Gophers are the top seed going into next weekend’s NCAA championship.

Tyler Rushmeyer

The Minnesota wrestling team took the Big Ten Championships in dominating fashion.

In fact, the space between the Gophers and a distant second place Wisconsin was 56.5, the largest gap between the title team and its nearest competitor since 1996.

The win was a big statement to the conference and the nation as to which team is the country’s best, but Minnesota needs to take one more step in Auburn Hills, Mich., in the upcoming week to prove it.

Sending nine of its best, the Gophers will look to avoid a repeat of last season when they brought their top ranking and a conference title into the NCAA Championships and left in a distant second place.

Junior Gabe Dretsch, ranked No. 12 at 174 pounds, said the team has learned a valuable lesson from last year’s results.

“We thought we were at a high enough level last year at this time and we weren’t,” he said. “This year, I think we’re really peaking at the right time.”

Seven Minnesota wrestlers are ranked in the top 10 heading into the tournament with five in the top 3.

Junior Mack Reiter, ranked No. 8 at 133 pounds – after recovering from an opening day loss in the Big Ten championships to take home the third place title – said the first matches Thursday for everyone could be the most important.

“I think we came out sluggish last week,” he said. “It showed us that there is still room for improvement if we want to take home the title.”

Most of the current crop of Minnesota wrestlers is back this season after coming up short at the NCAA championships last year, as it returns seven wrestlers and welcomes two new faces to the fold.

Last season the Gophers took home two individual national titles, tying the record for the most in a single season in Minnesota wrestling history.

Both of those wrestlers return and have easily shored up the top seeds: senior Cole Konrad at heavyweight and sophomore Dustin Schlatter at 149 pounds.

It’s the combination of established wrestlers and newcomers like redshirt freshman Jayson Ness, ranked No. 3 at 125 pounds, that assistant coach Brandon Eggum said gives Minnesota a good shot at winning its first national title since 2002.

“Last year, we had a young squad coming into the national tournament,” he said. “Now they’ve seen it, and I think it’s made them hungrier this year.”

There appears to be unanimous consent among the Gophers that they are the best in the nation and the title is in their hands if they want it.

The national polls agree as Minnesota has been the unanimous top team in the country for nearly two months.

But the Gophers find themselves in the same situation as last season when they traveled to Oklahoma City, Okla. and fell to Oklahoma State by nearly 40 points.

Reiter said the upcoming tournament is all about every wrestler doing what he has to do and not looking too far ahead in the tournament.

“Of course the national title is in the back of everyone’s mind,” he said. “But you can’t win it without taking your first match.”

Ness, one of four Gophers to take a Big Ten individual title last weekend, will be wrestling in his first NCAA tournament.

“I traveled to watch it last season and it really got me motivated to be a part of it this season,” he said. “Now, I’m in with eight other wrestlers and we just have to follow through.”