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Gophers wrestling staying disciplined leading up to NCAA Tournament

Coming off a Big Ten championship, Isaiah Salazar –– along with several other Gophers wrestlers –– will represent Minnesota in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Image by Gabrielle Erenstein
Micheal Blockhous, a sixth year senior, beat his opponent from Northwestern on Sunday, Feb. 4. The Gophers swept the Wildcats from Northwestern with a score of 39-0. Isaiah Salazar and Patrick McKee both competed in the title match for their weight class at the Big Ten tournament.

The Gophers wrestling team will send representatives from all 10 weight classes to the NCAA wrestling tournament for the first time since 2013. 

The team had two wrestlers compete in the final round of their respective weight classes. Fourth-year Isaiah Salazar took home the Big Ten conference title in the 184-pound class and sixth-year Patrick McKee was the runner-up in the 125-pound division.

Sixth-year Michael Blockhus entered the Big Ten tournament ranked No. 2 at 157 pounds but needed medical attention during his quarterfinal match. Blockhus was pinned down by Will Lewan from Michigan and elected to injury default in the consolation match.

Gophers head coach Brandon Eggum said he knew Blockhus would qualify for the national tournament even without competing at the conference tournament. Eggum decided to pull Blockhus from the conference tournament to avoid aggravating his injury and to limit additional days of recovery.

“We know [Blockhus] is capable of beating anybody,” Eggum said. “We did everything that we could to make sure we’re putting him in the best spot for the national tournament.”

Blockhus will enter the NCAA tournament as the No. 13 seed and take on the No. 20 seed, Max Brignola of Lehigh, in his first match.

Since the end of the Big Ten tournament, Salazar said he has been fine-tuning his wrestling techniques and reviewing film from his previous matches, analyzing his performance and the styles of his opponents.

Salazar said wrestlers who use what they learn in film sessions and anticipate their opponent’s actions are generally the ones most successful on the mat.

“Being able to stay a step ahead is huge,” Salazar said.

Throughout the season, Eggum preached to his wrestlers the importance of staying disciplined on the mat. Eggum added the deeper into the match and the more intense it gets, the higher the chance Salazar would come out on top.

“I think he functions very well in that situation,” Eggum said.

For the last three years, Salazar said his consistency on the mat has “fallen short,” so he is trying to home in on his confidence late in matches when he and his opponent are both tired. 

“That’s when the match pretty much starts,” Salazar said. “You got to really dig deep.”

The 184-pound conference title is the first conference title the Gophers program has won since Gable Steveson won the heavyweight title in 2022.

McKee enters the NCAA Tournament as the No. 9 seed and will meet No. 24 Kysen Terukina from Iowa State for the first time, in the 125 class. 

McKee said the break between the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments is nice because he is not concerned with cutting weight each week. Instead, he is focused on having shorter and more intense practices.

With no concern about weight-cutting, McKee said he had more one-on-one work with his coaches.

During the offseason, McKee said he weighs around 140 pounds but wrestles more competitively at 125, so he shrinks his body down to wrestle in his desired class.

“If I went up to 133 or even 141, I’d be smaller than a lot of guys,” McKee said.

McKee said he started mixed martial arts training three years ago with his teammate Blockhus to save his body from wear and tear and add cardio to his training regimen.

“You’re gonna be tired,” McKee said. “You really just have to push through and get tough with it.”

The NCAA Tournament begins Thursday and runs through Saturday. The Gophers join seven other programs in sending representatives from all 10 weight classes.

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