Tourney features highs, lows for Gophers

by Allison Younge

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — The NCAA wrestling tournament produced diverse individual outcomes for the Gophers. From the excitement of an overtime victory to the disappointment of an upset loss, the tournament highs and lows were felt by all.
“It’s like all tournaments, there’s ups and downs. But our third place finish was a full team effort,” Robinson said. “And everybody’s pretty proud of that.”
All 10 Minnesota wrestlers competed at the NCAAs. Jason Davids (142 pounds), Chad Kraft (150) and Tim Hartung (190) claimed third place honors, but here is how the rest of the Gophers finished at NCAAs:
Brandon Paulson
Paulson opened the NCAA tournament for the Gophers and ignited Minnesota fans by pinning Cal State Fullerton’s Orlando DeCastroverde in 1:40. The pin added an extra point to Minnesota’s team score and sparked a six-match win streak for the Gophers.
After a strong first round, Paulson (No. 10) appeared confident and prepared for his upcoming matches. An upset over Rider’s John Caralheira (No. 7) was necessary in the second round. The match was an even battle until a last minute takedown in the final period advanced Caralheira to the quarterfinals and sent Paulson into the consolation bracket.
“I felt weak at the end of the match,” Paulson said. “He got a good shot, and I couldn’t defend him.”
Paulson, a 1996 Olympic silver-medalist in Greco Roman wrestling, lost two months of training after suffering a severe ankle injury on Jan. 18. He underwent corrective surgery on Jan. 29 and was sidelined for seven dual meets. Paulson returned for the Big Ten tournament and pinned his first opponent, but he was downed in the second round. The Big Tens and NCAA’s marked similar outcomes for Paulson.
“It wasn’t my ankle, it was lack of practice time,” Paulson said. “I wasn’t in the shape that I needed to be in. I had seven good practices before nationals, but it wasn’t enough.” Having a reputation for success, Paulson described his disappointment following the loss.
“When I get on the mat, I expect to win,” Paulson said. “I’ve always had high expectations, winning the medal put a little more pressure on me. I’ve realized that I’m one of the best in the world in Greco Roman, I want to be one of the best in college also.”
Pat Connors
Connors, a 126 pounder, earned his starting position with the Gophers near the end of the regular season. He entered his first NCAA tournament as a rookie — a tournament sleeper — but his determination to prove himself among the best in the nation made him an All-American.
Connors (No. 11) breezed past his first round opponent by major decision, 11-2. He went on to upset Arizona State’s Shawn Ford (No. 6) in an explosive second round match. Connors landed a takedown with 35 seconds left in overtime to advance to the quarterfinals by a score of 3-1.
“I felt confident,” Connors said. “I try to build momentum in my matches, and that helps me believe in myself. When I believe in myself, I win.”
Even though Connors was knocked off by Wisconsin’s Eric Jetton in a close 2-1 quarterfinal match, he rallied to earn All-America honors by getting eighth place overall.
Troy Marr
Marr (134 pounds) also didn’t waste time building tournament excitement. In his first round match against Arizona State’s Joey Heckel with the score tied 4-4 in the third period, Marr scored a last-minute takedown to secure a 6-4 victory.
The 134 pound weight class, recognized as one of the toughest in the tournament, pitted Marr (No. 11) against Maryland’s James Guzzio (No. 5) in the second round. Guzzio wrestled a 7-0 shutout match against Marr sending him to consolations.
Josh Holiday
The Gophers’ flashy 158 pounder dealt with disappointing circumstances at the NCAAs. Holiday, a sophomore, battled severe stomach cramps throughout his three tournament matches.
“I don’t know what it was,” Holiday said. “It could’ve been nerves, I might have been sick. I’m not sure.”
He managed to win his first round match despite numerous time-outs and obvious pain, but he was shutout 16-0 and 7-0 in his final two bouts.
“It’s frustrating when you work so hard all season and then everything rides on one weekend,” Holiday said. “At this tournament, to do well you need to be able to perform, and I just couldn’t do it.”
Zac Taylor
Taylor (167 pounds) ended the Gophers six-match first round win streak in an upsetting loss to West Virginia’s unranked Vertus Jones. Taylor (No. 7) appeared to be right in sync with his teammates at the beginning of his first match.
He stomped onto the mat with confident authority as usual, but allowed Jones to keep the score close throughout the match. In the final period with the score tied 7-7, Taylor landed a takedown but was ruled out of bounds. When the action started again, Jones scored on a last-second takedown to seal the win. Taylor left the mat looking stunned.
Taylor’s NCAA tournament struggles didn’t end there, however. After winning his first consolation match, Taylor suffered arguably the biggest upset in his college career. Central Michigan’s Mike Greenfield locked Taylor in a cradle hold, flipped him on his back and pinned him in 31 seconds.
“Zac is still trying to control too many things,” Robinson said. “He’s got to let go of this and realize that it’s not life and death.”
For Taylor, the NCAA tournament meant a frustrating end to a frustrating season.
“It’s tough,” Robinson said. “You want something so bad that the want gets in the way of what you need to do — you lose control.”
Brandon Eggum
Eggum (177 pounds) experienced the luck of the draw when he was pitted against Oklahoma State’s Mark Smith (No. 1) in the first round. Minnesota’s sturdy freshman charmed Minnesota fans by sticking with one of the best 177 pounders in the nation.
With Gophers fans excitedly chanting his name, the score 3-1, Eggum nearly landed a takedown in the third period to tie the match. Smith, however, held on to the lead and advanced with a 3-1 victory.
This match marked Eggum’s last full match at NCAAs. In his first consolation match against Cal Poly SLO’s Michael French, Eggum suffered a low ankle sprain. After Eggum’s desperate attempt to continue the match, French was named the winner by injury default 3-2. Even though he was sentenced to the sideline on crutches to watch the remainder of the tournament, Eggum remained optimistic.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be out with this injury, but I’ll be back on the mat as soon as possible,” Eggum said. “I already miss being out there.”
Shelton Benjamin
At the beginning of the season, Benjamin, the Gophers’ heavyweight transfer, set a goal to become an All-American. Ending the regular season with a 17-11 overall record made this goal look more like a pipe dream, but he never stopped believing.
“This tournament was a second chance for me, a time to redeem myself,” Benjamin said. “I needed to make up for some of my losses in the past.”
Benjamin credited Gopher’s assistant coach Marty Morgan for helping to motivate him before the tournament.
“I just told Marty that I wrestle best when I’m mad,” Benjamin said. “He said, ‘Well, we’ve got to find some way to get you in that zone.'”
Benjamin not only made up for his losses, he became the Gophers’ newest crowd pleaser, upset four ranked heavyweights and ended up finishing fifth overall.
“I came here to become an All-American, everything else is icing on the cake,” Benjamin said.