Wrestlers are confident going into the NCAAs

by Allison Younge

The meaning of a solid tournament team, defined by Gopher’s head wrestling coach J Robinson, includes many components.
“A good tournament team takes care of each other, they look ahead, they get themselves up and in the flow, they remain focused and loose and they know what they need to do to win.”
Robinson is confident that the Gophers possesses all of the tournament qualities necessary to upset tournament favorites at this week’s NCAA Tournament in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The proof lies in the Gophers team, Robinson said.
They take care of each other
“When these guys wrestle, they are pulling for each other — they are a very close knit team, they want to win together.”
They look ahead
“What we want to do is look to the future. Everything else is in the past, the only thing that matters now is the NCAA Tournament.”
They get themselves up and in the flow
“The team is excited to prove how good they are. It comes down to a contest of wills — who wants it worse, who’s willing to give the most and fight the hardest.”
They remain focused
“They don’t let a lot of pressure get to them. They work hard and have great attitudes.”
They remain loose
“They are at their best when they’re relaxed and having a good time. They don’t need an emotional speech for motivation.”
They know what they need to do to win
“These guys have the ability to believe that they can win. This one of their biggest advantages.”
Throughout the season, Robinson has reinforced his statement that this year’s wrestling team has the potential to be the best in Gophers history.
“All along we’ve said this is a better team than teams we’ve had in the past — it goes back to team unity. They’re a family.”
The Gophers logged one impressive record into the books after the Big Ten Tournament. Minnesota finished among the top six in all ten weight classes, qualifying the entire lineup for NCAA’s for the first time in Gophers history.
Along with Minnesota, Penn State and Iowa also qualified ten wrestlers at the Big Tens. The Gophers toughest team opponents appear to be No. 1 Oklahoma State and No. 2 Iowa.
Iowa downed Minnesota in two dual meets during the regular season and finished first at the Big Tens. The Gophers also fell to Oklahoma State in dual meet competition.
“The leaders are Oklahoma State and Iowa,” Robinson said. “But we’re right behind them. It will take a little more from us to win it.”
The young Gophers team, comprised of four juniors, five sophomores and one freshman, will need veteran performances at all 10 weight classes to remain in contention for a national team title.
Returning to the mat after a three week ankle injury hiatus, 1996 Olympic silver medalist Brandon Paulson amazed Big Ten spectators by rallying for a major decision victory in the first round of Big Tens. Paulson went on to lose his next two matches at the tournament. After taking a few days off to rest his ankle, Paulson was gearing up for NCAA’s.
“He had a hard weekend at Big Tens,” Robinson said. “But the wrestling has done him a lot of good. He should be ready for NCAA’s.”
Clarion’s Sheldon Thomas (No. 1), Oklahoma State’s Teague Moore (No. 2) and Michigan’s David Morgan (No. 3) will offer Paulson some excellent competition at 118.
Pat Connors made a name for himself at the Big Tens, capturing a third place finish in an intense major decision victory. Ever since he earned a permanent starting position in the Gopher’s lineup, he has shown vast improvement.
“He is feeling more secure in what he’s doing,” Robinson said. “If he looks at himself and wrestles like a finalist or an All-American, it will make all the difference for him in the tournament.” Oklahoma State’s Eric Guerrero (No. 1), Dwight Hinson (No. 2) from Iowa State and Iowa’s Mike Mena (No. 3) are all favored in the 126 pound weight class.
Minnesota’s 134-pounder Troy Marr is positioned in what may be the toughest weight class of the tournament.
“There are four or five guys that could easily win the title,” assistant coach Marty Morgan said. Iowa’s Mark Ironside will bid for his first NCAA title after placing third last year. Ironside won an individual title at the Big Tens and was named Big Ten Wrestler of the Year.
Indiana’s Big Ten title winner Roger Chandler (No. 2) and Lockhaven’s Cary Kolat (No. 1) will battle Minnesota’s Jason Davids and others for title honors at 142 pounds. Davids, ranked third, sees similarities between his two higher-ranked opponents.
“Kolat wrestles a lot like Chandler,” Davids said. “He’s short and stocky like Chandler. He’s one of the best all-around wrestlers in the country.”
Gophers 150-pounder Chad Kraft will return to the NCAA’s after earning All-American honors as a freshman at last year’s tournament. Kraft will be seeded fourth behind Iowa’s Big Ten Champion Lincoln McIravy (No. 1), Iowa State’s Chris Bono (No. 2) and Michigan’s Bill Lacure (No. 3).
Illinois’ Big Ten title winner Ernest Benion (No. 2) and Iowa’s Joe Williams (No. 1) will be among the leaders at 158 pounds. Gophers sophomore Josh Holiday will fight for position. Holiday, a sophomore, placed third at NCAA’s and hopes to improve on a two loss performance at nationals last year.
The 167 pound weight class will pose solid challengers for the Gophers’ Zac Taylor. With four of the top six wrestlers coming out of the Big Ten, Taylor will be familiar with at least a few of his opponents. But he doesn’t have any rematch preferences when it comes to the NCAA’s.
“I don’t think about who I’d like to wrestle,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t come into play in this tournament — you wrestle who you wrestle.”
Iowa State’s Barry Weldon (No. 1) flanks the 177-pounders, followed by Arizona State’s Aaron Simpson (No. 2) and Michigan State’s Erich Harvey (No. 3). Gophers freshman Brandon Eggum is set to compete in his first NCAA tournament after finishing fourth overall at Big Tens.
Minnesota’s Big Ten Champion Tim Hartung will likely meet some unfamiliar opponents at the NCAA tournament. Hartung will be seeded third behind Edinboro’s top-ranked Jason Robison and Oklahoma’s John Kading (No. 2).
Heavyweight Shelton Benjamin will round out the lineup for the Gophers. Benjamin, a junior, finished sixth at the Big Tens to qualify for the tournament. Major heavyweight contenders include Penn State’s Big Ten Champion Kerry McCoy (No. 1), Bakersfield’s Stephen Neal (No. 2) and Nebraska’s Tolly Thompson (No. 3).
With the tournament team defined and ten Gophers ready to battle at NCAAs, Robinson believes in the talents of his young team.
“I expect us to be No. 1,” Robinson said. “Every guy on this team is capable of becoming an All-American.”