Wrestlers repeat thanks to five individual champs

Anthony Maggio

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – After defending national champion Minnesota won its second straight Big Ten team Championship, coach J Robinson and Ohio State coach Russ Helickson were announced co-coaches of the year in the conference.

Gophers fans immediately began yelling for a wrestle off. And why not? The Gophers set team records by sending seven grapplers to the conference finals, with five winning Big Ten Championships.

All 10 wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Championships in Albany, N.Y. Minnesota had the team championship won mathematically before the championship round even started. The Gophers ended with 179 points while Iowa scored 129 for a distant second.

“Having seven guys in the finals is unbelievable,” Big Ten champion Leroy Vega said. “To have the team championship won before the finals start is awesome.”

The finals began at 125 pounds Sunday afternoon. Three-time All-American Vega defeated Luke Eustice of Iowa 7-4 to capture his first Big Ten title.

Ryan Lewis followed at 133 pounds and defeated Jeff Ratliff of Ohio State en route to an individual Big Ten Championship.

Lewis, who improved his season mark to 28-0, was also named Outstanding Wrestler of the 2001-02 season.

Two-time All-American Luke Becker won the third Gophers title by defeating second-seeded Ryan Bertin of Michigan. Minnesota had earned three individual conference champions in one season four times in its history, but on Sunday the Gophers had three champions after five matches.

Sophomore Damion Hahn upset top-seeded Andy Hrovat of Michigan for the championship at 184 pounds, and Owen Elzen followed with a win over top-seeded Nick Preston of Ohio State.

“When I came to Minnesota, I wanted to be on a team that was working for one thing – a team that was going to be a national championship team,” Hahn said. “Now we’re proving it.”

The Gophers got the best warm-up for the NCAA Championships they could have wanted. Four of the top 10 teams in the nation are from the Big Ten, including the top three: Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa.

“We came here wanting to make a statement that Minnesota wrestling is for real,” Robinson said. “We’re looking forward to the nationals now; we wanted to use this meet as a stepping stone for the national tournament.”

The rest of Minnesota’s squad also turned in strong performances, with all finishing at or above their seed. Chad Erikson and Jared Lawrence both earned second-place finishes after dropping their final matches.

Erikson was pinned by Luke Moffitt of Iowa, while Lawrence gave up a takedown with eight seconds left to undefeated Mike Zadick of Iowa to lose 4-3. The takedown, however, came with some controversy, as Lawrence stopped wrestling because he heard an official blow his whistle.

There is no rule in place to look at match film, so the takedown call stood.

In the early session on Sunday, Garrett Lowney and Jacob Volkmann captured third place finishes by winning the consolation round. Lowney defeated Matt Brink of Michigan in the third place match by scoring a takedown in overtime. Volkmann dominated Rashad Evans of Michigan State 13-1 in his third place match.

Nate Baker dropped his first match on Sunday to third-seeded Don Vecchio of Penn State but won by virtue of the tiebreaker against seventh-seeded Charles Martelli to earn fifth place.

Minnesota’s wrestlers will likely see a few of the grapplers they faced this weekend at nationals in two weeks. The Gophers are looking forward to defending their title while adding to Minnesota’s budding tradition.

“Jared Lawrence said it best,” Damion Hahn said. “The dynasty of wrestling is going to be through our program.”