Robinson eyes another wrestling title next year

by Anthony Maggio

Early in Minnesota’s wrestling season, a walk to head coach J Robinson’s office meant passing by four large trophies just outside his door.

By the end of February, there was a fifth trophy for the best dual meet record in the Big Ten.

Two weeks later, there was a sixth for winning the Big Ten Championships.

And as of last Saturday night, the shelf supporting the trophies is nearly full with the addition of the biggest piece of hardware – the team’s second straight NCAA National Championship trophy.

“It’s good any time you can go back and repeat because repeating is all about consistency,” Robinson said. “You can take confidence in that you knew ahead of time, you came back and won and proved to the people you could do it again, you’re legit, and you’re for real.”

The Gophers came into this season with sights set on not only a second straight national championship, but with aspirations of individual champions as well.

Last season, Minnesota won the NCAA Championships with 10 All-Americans, but not a single finalist.

This year, the Gophers reached their goals by repeating as national champions while placing three wrestlers in the finals. Juniors Jared Lawrence (149 pounds) and Luke Becker (157) both won their final match, earning their first individual national titles.

Those titles mark the first time in the program’s history that Minnesota earned more than one individual champion at a single NCAA championship. The Gophers became the first back-to-back national champions in school history since the 1940 and 1941 Minnesota football teams won consecutive national titles.

But Robinson aspires for even greater things.

“We had seven guys that could have been finalists, but we didn’t get them there,” Robinson said. “So you go back and try to get more next year.”

Minnesota graduates three seniors from the team, leaving holes in the Gophers’ nearly rock solid lineup. Those departing are three-time All-American and reigning Big Ten champion Leroy Vega (125), two time All-American Chad Erikson (141), and two-time All-American and reigning Big Ten champion Owen Elzen (197).

The three wrestlers have spent five seasons under Robinson’s tutelage, and he is sad to see them go.

“Over the course of five years you develop some close friendships with them,” Robinson said. “It goes beyond more than the coach-student relationship.

“There’s an old saying that once you’ve lost someone, as long as they’re in your heart they’re with you forever. It’s kind of like that with those guys.”

Right now there is no immediate replacement for Vega, and Robinson said the 125-pound weight class is a recruiting priority. He will look for a junior college wrestler who could make immediate impact, but will also attend some high school national tournaments to locate up-and-coming talent.

Cory Cooperman could have been in contention for the starting spot, but transferred midway through the season.

At the 141 spot, sophomore Trent Hatlevig and freshman Tommy Owen have the best chances to secure a starting job. Hatlevig went 13-10 on the season and Owen finished with a 7-2 mark.

Elzen’s replacement will likely be either freshman Chad Mentel or sophomore Eli Ross. Mentel finished with a 7-8 tally this year, while Ross ended 12-5.

Despite the losses, Minnesota returns the most points next season from this year’s NCAA Championships. And Robinson said the team’s goal is to win a third consecutive title.

“It gets harder every time because people are up for you more,” Robinson said. “You have to work at it harder, but it becomes more rewarding.

“It’s like me saying I’m going to single leg you in advance and you know it, and I do it anyway. You have even a greater sense of accomplishment because I’m good enough that I can tell you I’m going to do it and you can’t stop me.”

Anthony Maggio welcomes comments at [email protected]