Bittersweet repeat: Gopher wrestling earns NCAA title

by Anthony Maggio

ALBANY, N.Y. – After winning the NCAA team title for the second straight year, Minnesota’s wrestling squad was not jubilant. In fact, some of the grapplers were noticeably disappointed.

Last season, Minnesota triumphed at the NCAA meet despite no individual champions or finalists.

This season, the Gophers were hungry for individual titles.

“It was important because that was our theme this year – to push people in the finals and get champions,” Minnesota coach J Robinson said. “We said if we did that the team thing would take care of itself, and it did.”

Though six Gophers wrestlers did not wrestle to their respective seeds, Minnesota won the team title on the strength of two national champions – Jared Lawrence and Luke Becker – and five more grapplers earning All-America honors.

Minnesota’s wrestling team became the school’s first back-to-back national champions since the 1940 and 1941 Gophers football teams.

The title also marks the first time in program history Minnesota
captured more than one individual national championship in a season.

“It feels good to come back and reach the goals that we set,” Robinson said. “We feel good about what it does for our program and our individuals.

“And any time you can make history it is good for the sport.”

The team set high expectations this year, then posted an undefeated dual-meet season, a Big Ten title and five individual conference champions.

The same individuals who propelled Minnesota to its success during the season lifted the team at the NCAA Championships. But for some, it still wasn’t good enough.

Top-seeded Ryan Lewis took second place in a questionable championship match. Johnny Thompson of Oklahoma State won 5-4 after taking injury time when it appeared Lewis was about to take Thompson down.

The decision ended Lewis’ undefeated season. He had won 34 matches prior to the loss.

Chad Erikson finished seventh at 141 pounds, Damion Hahn finished fifth at 184, Owen Elzen took fourth at 197, and Garrett Lowney rounded out Minnesota’s All-Americans by finishing fifth.

The team race was mathematically sealed for the Gophers before the championship round started Saturday afternoon. The Gophers finished with 126.5 team points, 22.5 ahead of second-place Iowa State.

Minnesota didn’t take the lead in the team race until Friday morning in the third session when Becker’s win put the Gophers two points in front of Oklahoma.

“(The tournament) seemed more up and down this year,” Robinson said. “We lost some guys along the way, and that made it hard. It was more of a rollercoaster this year than last year, but that’s the way it is.”

On Thursday, Minnesota suffered three blows, with Nate Baker, Leroy Vega and Jacob Volkmann losing their second round matches.

The two returning All-Americans, Vega and Volkmann, won their first matches in the wrestlebacks Friday but lost their second ones, eliminating both from the tournament and All-America contention.

Vega was devastated after his match and ran off the mat shedding tears. Losing his first match cost Vega his dream of becoming a national champion, and losing his second match ended his hopes of becoming only the second Minnesota wrestler to be a four-time All-American.

“After my first loss I was really devastated,” said Vega, struggling to keep his composure. “It was hard to come back that next morning.

“My whole life I’ve had good tournaments, I’ve been ready. I was prepared this time, and things didn’t fall into place for me. That’s how the cards are dealt. I wasn’t meant to be a four-time All-American or a national champion.”

Vega’s loss was difficult for the team to deal with, and the grapplers were in a somber mood heading to the semifinals.

Three of the six Minnesota semifinalists – Lewis, Lawrence and Becker – advanced to the final matches with victories Friday night. Hahn, Elzen and Lowney all lost Friday evening.

The second-ranked Hahn fell to sixth-ranked Josh Lambrecht by an 8-6 decision.

“It leaves me hungry and pisses me off,” Hahn said. “I want to start up again right now and do it again.”

Hahn sprained his medial collateral ligament in the dual meet with Iowa on Feb. 1, and it has since gotten worse. He will get an MRI this week.

With Hahn and many other grapplers falling short of their individual goals, some couldn’t even take solace in a team national championship. They called it great to have but retreated to hopes of achieving more individual success next season.

“I’m looking forward to next season,” Lewis said. “There’s nothing I can do about this now. I’m just going to take it like a man and go on.”

Anthony Maggio covers wrestling and welcomes comments at [email protected]