On March 22, 1996, Gophers wrestler Chad Kraft entered Target Center for the NCAA wrestling championships as a freshman intent on becoming a national champion at 150 pounds.
Kraft lost that day to eventual champion Chris Bono of Iowa State, but he has never lost sight of his goal. He took fifth and earned All-American honors, as do the top 10 wrestlers at the NCAAs at each weight class.
But that achievement is not enough for Kraft.
“Just being an All-American isn’t going to satisfy me anymore,” Kraft said. “I want to win it all. I’m not going to take the backseat to anybody this year.”
All of his success didn’t just happen overnight. Kraft (a Lakefield, Minn., native) has been wrestling competitively since he was five years old.
“When I was in kindergarten, my best friend’s father got us started wrestling and then it just grew from there,” Kraft said. “I loved the competition.”
Kraft was heavily recruited out of Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield High School. He won three consecutive state Class A titles and compiled a 191-18-1 overall record. He finished his high school career with 80 consecutive wins.
Several Big Ten programs and many other major colleges sought Kraft’s wrestling talent, but Minnesota’s home-state advantage won out.
“We had been watching Kraft throughout high school,” said assistant coach Marty Morgan. “Everyone in the state had been talking about him.”
After deciding to attend Minnesota, Kraft redshirted the 1994-95 season and then became a mainstay in the Gophers’ lineup last year.
Kraft posted a 29-11 overall record last season and was named Outstanding Freshman and Most Dedicated Wrestler.
“Chad has a great work ethic,” Morgan said. “He’s not just at practice to practice, but to learn and improve everyday.”
Through summer camps and intense weight training, Kraft has come back bigger, stronger and ready for another season with the Gophers.
“Chad was a very good freshman, but he sometimes held back on offense,” Morgan said. “This year he is a lot stronger.”
Only three other freshmen were named All-American last season. This honor sets Kraft apart as one of the best 150-pound wrestlers in the nation.
Kraft isn’t worried about the pressure that these accomplishments might bring. Instead, he maintains a level head and looks at the positive effects of pressure.
“The pressure forces me to take the next step, that’s what good wrestlers have to do — overcome the pressure.”
Kraft, ranked No. 4, is undefeated so far this season at 150 pounds, but two senior defending national champions are ranked above him. Despite these odds, Kraft is confident in his chances at an NCAA title this year.
“I want to get to the finals and win a national title,” said Kraft. “I feel I have a good opportunity to do it this year. I know that people are looking to knock me off, but all I need to do is focus on what I want to accomplish and work hard.”
Along with his goal of winning a title, Kraft also strives to become the first four-time All-American in Gophers history.
He will get another chance to improve his spotless 7-0 record tonight when No. 6 Minnesota hosts Northwestern at Williams Arena at 7:30 p.m. for the Gophers’ first home meet of the season. The match will mark the second dual meet of the season for Minnesota (1-0), and the first for Northwestern.
For Kraft, the significance of tonight’s meet will mean more than a chance to improve to 8-0, it will be another stride toward a national title.