OKLAHOMA CITY – After Logan Storley beat Nebraska’s Robert Kokesh in two extra periods with a last-second takedown in the 174-pound quarterfinals, a large contingent of Gophers fans stood and let out a resonating mix of cheers and applause.
The 6-4 decision wasn’t the only reason for those fans to be excited Friday at the NCAA wrestling championships.
After six victories in the morning session, the Gophers carved out a realistic shot at a team national championship, and the cheers only got louder throughout semifinal matches at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.
The Gophers finished Friday in second place with 90.5 points, narrowly trailing three-time defending champion Penn State at 91. Oklahoma State is in third with 87.5 points.
Penn State and the Gophers both enter Saturday with two finalists, and Oklahoma State has four.
That leaves the tournament up for grabs, with the Gophers among the front-runners thanks largely to a strong showing early Friday.
“It gives you that little boost,” 157-pounder Dylan Ness said. “It gets my confidence going and brings excitement to the fans. I think they’re cheering a little louder now that we’re in the team race.”
Ness drew his own mass applause after getting his third consecutive victory by fall in the quarterfinals in an upset of Nebraska’s James Green at 157 pounds.
Ness’ evening semifinal against Kent State’s Ian Miller was less explosive, but still provided drama. Ness got a takedown in the waning seconds to seal a 6-4 decision and advance to Saturday’s championship against Alex Dieringer of Oklahoma State.
Gophers heavyweight Tony Nelson, a two-time defending champion, will join Ness as a finalist. Nelson notched a pin at the 1:26 mark on Wisconsin’s Connor Medbery in the quarterfinal before defeating Iowa’s Bobby Telford in a 4-2 decision.
Nelson will face North Carolina State’s Nick Gwiazdowski.
“I’ve been on the big stage,” Nelson said. “The first few times, you’re going to be nervous. Everyone’s looking at you, watching you. For me, it’s my last year. I really want to go out there and enjoy it. Being on that stage, it’s something not many guys get to experience.”
Storley, David Thorn (133), Kevin Steinhaus (184) and Scott Schiller (197) will wrestle for a shot at third place Saturday. With team standings coming down to a razor-thin margin, Gophers assistant coach Luke Becker said these matches will be vital.
“I think we’re in a good spot,” Becker said. “But for us to win it, those guys have to come back.
“They need to come back and get third, because it’s going to feel a heck of a lot better to get third than go out with a loss.”
Nelson is the favorite to win the heavyweight division, and Ness enters the final as arguably the hottest wrestler in the tournament. That makes the Gophers likely to come away with at least one individual title, but a team championship will take something extra.
“Our guys have done it all year,” Becker said. “Some things don’t go right, and we’ve had guys step up and make things happen. That’s what great teams do.
“We’ve been telling them all year, sometimes you can’t just do what’s required; you gotta go find a way to win, especially in a tournament like this.”