The Gophers wrestling team is set to take part in the best warm-up tournament in the country.
The Big Ten Championships begin Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, 12 days before national titles will be on the line in St. Louis at the NCAA championships.
This will be the final opportunity for some wrestlers to gain confidence and improve their seedings for the national meet. More than a third of the 260 automatic berths to the NCAAs will be awarded at Ohio State's campus.
"It's the toughest conference in the country by far," said Gophers assistant coach Brandon Eggum, himself a former two-time Big Ten champ for Minnesota. "It's a mini-national tournament. You look at some of these weights, who they meet in the [Big Ten] quarters might be a higher-ranked guy than who they'll meet in the quarters at the NCAA championship. It's great preparation from a standpoint of the confidence it'll bring you."
It'll give senior Dylan Ness a chance to shake off his first loss of this season two weeks ago.The Bloomington native will have the second seed at the 157-pound weight class, sporting a 26-1 record. Ness' career-long 26-match winning streak ended when he fell to No. 6-ranked Brian Realbuto 9-3 in the second-ranked Gophers' 19-17 loss to No. 5 Cornell.
Ness, the NCAA runner-up at 157 pounds last year, said he won't feel the same burden in the tournament-style setting this weekend as he would in a dual meet. There won't be a head-to-head score to worry about, and Ness felt he put extra pressure on himself during duals.
"I'm always trying to be the guy that comes through for the team," Ness said. "[Gophers coach] J Robinson just told me to let it go. So I've been relaxing, staying focused also, but I haven't been thinking about it too much."
"Relax" is a word Eggum used often this week when describing how he wanted the team to approach this weekend. Seniors Chris Dardanes and Nick Dardanes are seeded first and second at 133 and 141 pounds, while senior Scott Schiller received the third seed at 197. There will be opportunities for these wrestlers to maintain or improve their seeding for nationals, which could give them an inside edge at being a national champion or an All-America.
But Eggum doesn't want the Gophers to overthink all the scenarios on who they'll face at the Big Ten meet or how they can improve their NCAA seedings. There are many "unknowns" this weekend, and Eggum hopes none of his wrestlers overlook an opponent.
"People will text me, 'Oh you've got this seed,' " Schiller said. "But I don't even look at the brackets. I just let the coaches tell me who I have next and that's it. I know what seed I got, but I don't know who I'm wrestling. I kind of like it that way."
Penn State will be looking for its fifth consecutive conference team title this weekend. Minnesota finished third last year, just behind second-place Iowa. The Hawkeyes are ranked No. 1 in InterMat tournament rankings, followed by Minnesota, Ohio State in fourth and Penn State seventh.
The Gophers kept practices short and intense this week to keep guys fresh, given the season's wear and tear and the need for fresh showings starting Saturday.
"The work is done," Eggum said. "Up to this point, you're conditioning. Your strength, your technique, there's not a lot of change between the last week, Big Ten or the NCAAs. It's really about getting in that peaking process and making sure their bodies are rested, they're excited and ready to compete."