.ST. LOUIS – Jayson Ness’ 10-3 loss in the 125-pound title match Saturday night was a disappointing end to a disappointing tournament for Minnesota.
The defending national champion Gophers finished in 10th place at the NCAA wrestling championships in St. Louis with 61.5 points, tied for their worst finish in 30 national tournaments. Iowa ran away with the title, finishing 38.5 points in front of second-place Ohio State.
Ness was the only Minnesota wrestler to reach the semifinal round, to which four Gophers made it last year. After a dramatic win in the semis – he took down third-seeded Paul Donahoe with eight seconds left – Ness faced top-seeded Angel Escobedo in the championship.
“It would’ve been a nice note to end on,” Gophers coach J Robinson said. “It would’ve salvaged a tough three days.”
It was Escobedo who gave Ness his first loss of the season in the title match of the Big Ten tournament, which snapped Ness’ 37-match winning streak.
The rematch, held on an elevated stage and televised live on ESPN, was tied 2-2 after two periods, but Escobedo scored two takedowns and a two-point near-fall to pull away in the final period.
“All the work I’ve put in the past year was to get first place here, and I didn’t get it,” Ness said.
With seven wrestlers ranked in the top eight of their weight class, the Gophers were one of the tournament favorites. They finished the season ranked second, behind the Hawkeyes, in the W.I.N. Magazine tournament rankings.
They finished the first day in fourth place, which Robinson called “disappointing,” but trailed first-place Iowa by only 5.5 points.
It wasn’t until the next morning that things went south.
After a pin from Ness to start Friday morning’s quarterfinal session, the other four Gophers still in the championship bracket all lost, as well as the three in the consolation bracket.
A few of the losses were expected – Mack Reiter at 133 pounds and Roger Kish at 184 pounds both lost to top-seeded opponents – but several were upsets. No. 2 Dustin Schlatter lost to a No. 7 seed in the championship round, while No. 8 Gabe Dretsch and No. 5 C.P. Schlatter both lost to unseeded opponents in the consolation bracket.
“It was horrible,” said fifth-seeded Manuel Rivera, who lost to a No. 4 seed. “Nobody performed the way they needed to.”
Five years ago, the group of current seniors, including Dretsch, C.P. Schlatter, Reiter, Rivera and Kish, came to Minnesota as the top recruiting class in the country.
All ended their careers without a national title.
Reiter, after being knocked out of the championship bracket in a close 5-3 match, sat with his head buried in his hands for a few moments before leaving the arena in tears.
“Everything I’ve worked for my whole life, I lost this morning,” he said after the match.
“It’s hard to swallow when you work so hard on something for so long,” added Rivera. “We’ve all worked at this. It’s been a great five years but it’s tough for all of us to end without a title.”
Injuries prevented a few wrestlers from a legitimate chance at a title, Robinson said.
Dustin Schlatter missed most of the season with a hamstring injury, then sprained both his knee and ankle at the Big Ten tournament. His brother, C.P., tore his medial collateral ligament during the season and tore his hamstring during the tournament.
Roger Kish battled a bulging disc in his neck and had to wrestle in what looked like a wetsuit cut in half to keep his shoulder in place.
“Dustin’s out there on basically one leg. That kid has so much heart,” Reiter said. “And if anyone has as much heart as Dustin, it’s Roger. I think he’s being held together by glue.”
Ness, Reiter, Rivera and Dustin Schlatter all became All-Americans, an award given to those who finish in the top eight nationally. It was the first All-American award for the senior Rivera, and the third for both Reiter and Schlatter. Ness became a two-time All-American.
The final attendance for the six-session tournament at the Scottrade Center was 94,190, including a large Minnesota contingent.