Waiting for their shot: Gophers wrestlers pair with veterans

Wrestling practice partners put in work behind the scenes in hopes of seeing the mat.

Tommy Thorn, left, demonstrates a move with Assistant Coach Dustin Schlatter, right, at the Bierman Athletic Building on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017.

Ellen Schmidt

Tommy Thorn, left, demonstrates a move with Assistant Coach Dustin Schlatter, right, at the Bierman Athletic Building on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017.

Kyle Steinberg

At Minnesota, wrestling practice consists of a little light jogging, some warm-up somersaults and cartwheels and loud music ranging from “Somethin’ Bout a Truck” to “Gangsta’s Paradise” from mix CDs.

In a room where photos of All-Americans and National Champions of the past adorn the walls, today’s Gophers starters work to emulate their predecessors, but they aren’t the only ones working to get better.

Meet their practice partners —members of the team who don’t typically start in dual matches but compete in open tournaments and practice with the team.

In a typical practice, two wrestlers in similar weight classes will match up with each other so each can practice their technique.

Next in Line

Rylee Streifel has had a lot of success in his wrestling career. The redshirt freshman was a two time USA Wrestling All-American in high school and made the freestyle final at the Fargo Junior Nationals — one of the nation’s premier junior wrestling tournaments — in 2015.

Forgive him if the last two years have felt a little different.

Streifel is currently the second heavyweight on Minnesota’s roster behind No. 8 Michael Kroells, so his primary focus is on open tournaments and practice, where he typically pairs with Kroells for drills.

“You want to make Michael the best that he can be, so he can perform well,” Streifel said. “For myself, [I] want to work hard when [I’m] young so it pays off in the end.”

Kroells. a redshirt senior, certainly has reaped the benefits of a good practice partner. He boasts a top-10 national ranking in his weight class, and he scores consistent points for the Gophers in dual matches.

The team will look to Streifel next year to fill the void.

“If you look at the history here, the heavyweight weight class is one that we’ve been the most successful in the last 20 years, so it’s really important to continue that tradition,” said head coach Brandon Eggum.

For Streifel, that means continuing to learn, be it from practice or competing in open tournaments.

To improve his technical skills, he entered and won the 2016 Worthington Open.

The Gophers also bring Streifel on most road trips, which allows him to gain valuable experience for the future — even if he doesn’t wrestle.

“It’s really important that we get an opportunity to bring him, and he can see what we’re going through and the process,” Eggum said. “Hopefully, that will make him more comfortable [in the future].”

Caught in a Crowd

There’s an old saying that says “If you want to be the best, you must learn from the best,” and Ben Brancale is certainly among some of the best in his weight range.

That would be great under normal circumstances, but for the Gophers, there is a large crowd of underclassmen from 133 to 149 pounds, which limits opportunities for Brancale.

For now, the redshirt freshman is confined to a cycle similar to Streifel’s — practice with the starters, compete in open tournaments and wait for your shot.

“It gets tough,” Brancale said of the lack of dual competition. “Mentally, you just [have to] prepare for it the right way. You just [have to] take it on like you were to compete.”

Brancale had his fair share of success prior to college. He won a Fargo Junior National title in the Greco-Roman style, in addition to being named a three time USA Wrestling All-American.

He also won a Minnesota state title his senior year of high school.

Brancale clearly has a competitive side to him. He spends much of his practice time drilling with redshirt junior Jake Short, the eighth-ranked wrestler in the country at 157 pounds.

Brancale wrestles at 149, but even so, he must beat out a crowd of young wrestlers, including fellow redshirt freshman Carson Brolsma, to see the mat in dual action.

“No one is guaranteed a spot, whether you’re a returning All-American or not,” Eggum said. “[Brancale’s] got a great opportunity. He does things right. He’s got to continue to keep getting better … he has the capabilities.”

While being stuck in practice all year can be tiring, it’s not without purpose. For both wrestlers, they know their numbers could be called at any time, and if it happens, they have to be ready.

“It’s a thing you [have to] keep in the back of your mind,” Brancale said. “Injuries happen all the time, and they happen at unfortunate times, so you [have to] be ready whenever.”