Gophers take tumble, settle for second
Injuries, poor title-round performances haunt Minnesota
By Rachel Blount
MINNEAPOLIS — A little good health and a little good fortune added up to a glimmer of hope for the University of Minnesota wrestling team early in the Big Ten tournament. Then came Sunday, and they dropped right back into their old woes.
The Gophers lost all four of their title matches, had two wrestlers forfeit for medical reasons and were defeated in matches for third, fifth and seventh place as Iowa overtook them for the team title at Williams Arena.
The top-ranked Hawkeyes trailed the Gophers by 12 1/2 points after a flat performance Saturday, inciting the ire of coach Tom Brands. They surged back Sunday to win four third-place matches and one title, helping them earn 127 points and their first team championship since 2004.
A shocking loss by Jayson Ness in the 125-pound championship set off a dreary domino effect for the Gophers, who were second with 112.5 points. Ness entered the championships with the No. 1 ranking, a 35-0 record and a 36-match winning streak. Angel Escobedo of Indiana — who beat Ness at last year's NCAA tournament — got the upper hand and kept it for a 4-2 decision.
The Gophers finished without an individual Big Ten champion for the first time since 1996. They automatically qualified nine wrestlers for the NCAA championships March 20-22 in St. Louis.
"Yes, it's disappointing,’’ said Gophers coach J Robinson, whose team struggled with injuries all season after winning the Big Ten and NCAA team titles last year. "It’s damn disappointing. We had two guys out of our lineup, and that puts a lot of pressure on guys. It’s the same thing that happened all year long.’’
Neither C.P. Schlatter nor Roger Kish was able to compete Sunday because of old injuries that flared up in their Saturday semifinals. In addition to Ness’ defeat, Dustin Schlatter lost the 149-pound championship to Iowa’s top-ranked Brent Metcalf in the most hyped match of the tournament. Manuel Rivera dropped a 3-2 decision to top seed Kellen Russell of Michigan at 141, and Gabe Dretsch fell
5-3 to No. 1 seed Steve Luke of Michigan at 174 pounds.
Brands banged his hand on a table while lamenting his team’s lackluster showing in the semifinals, when three No. 2 seeds lost and only two wrestlers advanced to title matches. He challenged the Hawkeyes to "right the wrong" of that performance. With Brands leaping and stomping at the edge of the mat like the Lord of the Dance, the Hawkeyes began rolling up points in Sunday’s wrestlebacks and never let up before an announced crowd of 7,271.
The Gophers started poorly with Ness’ upset. Escobedo, the only wrestler in the field who had beaten Ness, thought he could win if he could get Ness down on the mat and ride him. He carried through on that strategy, ending the second-longest active winning streak in the NCAA.