Gophers open as preseason favorites

Minnesota is ranked No. 1 after finishing second to Penn State at last year’s NCAA championships.

Minnesota wrestler Dylan Ness (149 pounds), right, attempts to lock up Michigan's Eric Grajales on Jan. 27 at the Sports Pavilion.

Erin Westover, Daily File Photo

Minnesota wrestler Dylan Ness (149 pounds), right, attempts to lock up Michigan’s Eric Grajales on Jan. 27 at the Sports Pavilion.

Dane Mizutani

Tony Nelson flexed his biceps as the heavyweight champion of college wrestling last March, but he and his Gophers teammates had to watch as Penn State ran away with the team title.

Minnesota finished second to Penn State at the NCAA championships, but it carries the No. 1 ranking into this season, according to the USA Today poll. They shoulder equally lofty goals.

“Our goal is a national title,” assistant coach Brandon Eggum said.

It’s a realistic goal — the Gophers return a loaded lineup from last year, headlined by Nelson.

“We’ve got a great tradition here,” Eggum said. “We had a fairly young team last year, and we did real well, and that will help us this year.”

Nelson won the NCAA heavyweight title with a dramatic last-second takedown and said his goal is to repeat.

“I’ll be disappointed if I don’t [win] because that’s ultimately what I’m trying to achieve here,” Nelson said. “But I also want the team to be there, too. In a way, if the team reached the mark and I didn’t, I’d kind of be OK with it.”

Minnesota returns four All-Americans besides Nelson from last year’s roster: Chris Dardanes (133 pounds), Dylan Ness (149), Logan Storley (174) and Kevin Steinhaus (184). 

Although the team is experienced, it lost two key pieces from last season’s team. Zach Sanders’ (125) and Sonny Yohn’s (197) departures left two gaping holes in the lineup.

Sanders was a four-time All-American with the Gophers and anchored the 125-pound weight class for the last four seasons. Yohn was a three-time All-American with the squad. 

No worries. Minnesota wrestling doesn’t rebuild — it reloads.

“They’re hard guys to replace, and you’re not going to replace every single thing about each of those guys,” Steinhaus said, “but we’ve got some quality guys stepping into those weights.”

David Thorn fills the void that Sanders leaves. Thorn will move down from 133 pounds to wrestle in the 125-pound weight class this year. Scott Schiller will take over for Yohn at the 197-pound weight class.

Both have impressed Eggum so far in their development.

“We couldn’t replace Zach any better,” he said. “We had a lot of guys vying for that position, but with David moving down, he’s the guy right now.”

Eggum added that Schiller is further ahead than the coaches thought he would be entering the season. 

Barring injuries, the rest of the Gophers’ lineup is essentially set in stone. The experience the team’s freshmen gained last season looks like it will pay dividends in 2012-13, but Eggum said he is wary of complacency.

“If you’re trying to rest on your successes from last year, you’re not going to have a good season,” Eggum said.

While Dardanes will wrestle in the 133-pound weight class this year, his twin brother Nick Dardanes will likely start at 141 pounds.

Ness returns at 149 pounds after he placed second in the NCAA tournament last year as a redshirt freshman.

Cody Yohn (165) is the only senior in the starting lineup.

Storley entered last season as a true freshman and took over at 174 pounds. He will start again this year.

Minnesota has many question marks in the 157-pound weight class. It lost Jake Deitchler to concussions last season and has yet to find a viable replacement.

Eggum said the battle for 157 pounds won’t resolve itself until guys have wrestled in the first tournament of the year. He said “there’s like six guys fighting for that spot.”

Nelson said the team doesn’t put a lot of stock into being the nation’s top-ranked team.

“Penn State has won it the last two years, and to me they’re still the team to beat,” Nelson said. “It’s cool that we got the No. 1 ranking, but we’re not No. 1 until we do it.”

Minnesota joins four Big Ten teams in the top five of the NCAA rankings. Penn State is No. 2, Iowa is No. 4 and Ohio State is No. 5.

“We’ll see where we’re at right around Christmas time,” Steinhaus said. “We’ve just got to keep the goal in mind of national champs and not worry too much about the rankings.”