Down to the wire, again

Jon Duncombe’s patience ultimately pushed the Gophers past Oklahoma St.

by Aaron Blake

Minnesota’s wrestling team’s most important matches this season have found ways to hinge on the performance of 174-pounder Jon Duncombe. This time, he just had to keep it close.

Duncombe, ranked 12th, dropped a 12-8 decision to Oklahoma State’s top-ranked Chris Pendleton in the last match of Sunday’s dual. But the junior played conservatively and kept his opponent from scoring bonus points, giving Minnesota its most important victory of the season.

The 10th-ranked Gophers (12-6, 5-3 Big Ten) continued their rapid improvement and closed out the regular season on an immense note with a 17-16 win over the defending national champion and first-ranked Cowboys (17-2) in Stillwater, Okla., after downing No. 8 Penn State 28-12 on Friday at the Sports Pavilion.

“We dream about this kind of thing,” Minnesota assistant coach Joe Russell said about Sunday’s win. “We act like it’s the plan all along, but we went from being real low to real high. It’s amazing.”

Defending national champion Damion Hahn and sixth-ranked heavyweight Cole Konrad each scored major decisions for the Gophers in the second and third matches of the dual, respectively.

The Cowboys got one of those bonus points back when second-ranked Zach Esposito majored the Gophers’ Thomas McAlpine 17-6 at 149 pounds.

With Minnesota leading 14-13 after eight matches, Oklahoma State had a pair of nationally top-ranked wrestlers to close the dual out at 165 pounds and 174 pounds.

But the Gophers’ seventh-ranked 165-pounder Jacob Volkmann scored a huge upset, knocking off undefeated Tyrone Lewis 3-1.

Duncombe stepped to the mat with a four-point team lead and another undefeated opponent to contain for seven minutes.

“I was just trying to not get majored,” said Duncombe, who also closed out the Gophers’ victory over No. 2 Nebraska on New Year’s Day. “I would have liked to wrestle better, but I just did what I had to do for the team.”

Pendleton’s decision over Duncombe meant the Gophers, who lost to No. 13 Wisconsin and No. 19 Purdue just three weeks ago, have turned a season marred by disappointment into a postseason filled with promise and hope.

“I’m thrilled – the whole team’s thrilled,” Hahn said. “We’ve been saying it all along. We know when to peak.

“At halftime, they were scared and nervous, because they couldn’t handle our pace. It was a huge boost seeing how those guys were compared to how fresh we were.”

Sunday’s peak came just two days after another high point for Minnesota.

After a senior night celebration honoring Hahn and Volkmann at intermission of Friday’s match, the two went out and scored pins to give Minnesota what coach J Robinson called their best dual of the season – at the time.

Volkmann required just 1:14 to pin the Lions’ Jarrad Turner, and Hahn matted Adrian Rivera midway through the second period of his match.

Konrad also notched his best victory of the season, a 6-4 decision over a frustrated Pat Cummins, who is ranked second in the nation.

But Robinson was especially impressed with Volkmann, who wound up scoring another big one for his team on Sunday – just more than two weeks after returning from injury.

“This is the best I’ve seen him as far as changing off and moving,” Robinson said after Friday’s match. “He had some combinations, and that’s really good because he goes against the No. 1 guy in the country on Sunday.”