Wrestlers face tough Big Ten, look for repeat

This year’s Minnesota wrestlers are in territory that hasn’t been explored by the Gophers in 40 years — the team finds itself as the reigning Big Ten tournament champions.
Last March, Minnesota walked off the mats of tournament host Michigan with its first conference crown since 1959.
The tournament victory was especially unique because it snapped Iowa’s run of 25 consecutive Big Ten tournament titles.
But now comes the even larger challenge of repeating as conference kings. This season Minnesota will search that unexplored territory in hopes of defending its 1999 Big Ten title.
You can bet that Iowa will seek revenge, but the Hawkeyes won’t be the only team gunning for the Gophers. The Big Ten boasts seven teams in the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s top 25, and all look to dethrone Minnesota.
Top-ranked Iowa leads the race, followed by Minnesota (4th), Illinois (6th), Michigan (7th), Michigan State (11th), Wisconsin (21st) and Penn State (22nd).
To be a successful team, however, each individual competing at each weight class must do well to help their school.
Here is a rundown of Minnesota’s top wrestlers at each weight class, and who their top competition is from opposing Big Ten schools.
125 — Sophomore and returning All-American Leroy Vega leads the Gophers in this class. His No. 2 national ranking is sandwiched by two Big Ten wrestlers: Top-ranked Jeremy Hunter of Penn St. and No. 3 Jody Strittmatter from Iowa will be Vega’s stiffest opponents.
133 — Gophers junior Brett Lawrence has been starting for Minnesota thus far this season at 133 and is ranked 14th. The competition is high in the Big Ten — three Big Ten grapplers are ranked in the top four, including Iowa’s top-ranked Eric Juergens.
141 — Minnesota sophomore Chad Erikson is ranked 18th. Like Lawrence, Erikson has some tough competition in the conference, led by top-ranked Doug Schwab of Iowa.
149 — Jared Lawrence is the first of two freshmen Minnesota will rely on this season. He is ranked 10th nationally, most notably behind second-ranked Adam Tirapelle of Illinois.
157 — The other Minnesota freshman, Luke Becker, was ranked 18th nationally last week, but has fallen out of the top 20. Becker’s competition is steep. Two Big Ten wrestlers, Iowa’s T.J. Williams and Indiana’s Kevin Stanley are ranked first and fifth, respectively.
165 — Gophers sophomore John Hardy leads Minnesota in this class. Hardy is ranked 17th. Wisconsin’s Don Pritzlaff is the highest ranked Big Ten grappler at No. 4.
174 — Minnesota senior Delaney Berger adds veteran leadership to the Gophers. He’s ranked 19th, with top-ranked Otto Olson of Michigan at the head of the Big Ten class.
184 — Brandon Eggum, a Minnesota senior and returning All-American, leads the Big Ten at 184. His No. 2 ranking is tops in the conference, ahead of eighth-ranked Nate Patrick of Illinois. Eggum hopes to capture his second-straight Big Ten title.
197 — Gophers sophomore Owen Elzen heads into the season ranked eighth in the nation. Elzen will have his hands full with top-ranked Nick Muzashvilli of Michigan State, who sits at the head of the Big Ten list.
Heavyweight — Brock Lesnar rounds off the 1999-2000 Gophers team. The returning All-American is the nation’s top-ranked heavyweight.
Lesnar will be shooting to repeat as Big Ten champion, and is also looking for the national championship that barely eluded him last season.
There you have it, the breakdown of where Minnesota wrestlers stand in the Big Ten. The Gophers race to repeat begins Jan. 14 when Minnesota heads to Happy Valley to take on Penn State.

John R. Carter covers wrestling and welcomes comments at [email protected]