Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson was as thrilled as anyone when his team knocked off Iowa and Oklahoma State on Feb. 23 to win the National Duals.
The full-team competitions showed off the depth of the Gophers roster, but that part of the season’s over. It’s time for individual wrestlers to shine, starting at this weekend’s Big Ten Championships in Champaign, Ill., with qualifiers advancing to the NCAA Championships in two weeks.
“The one thing that every kid wants to be is an NCAA champion,” Robinson said. “In the end, it’s an individual sport, and that’s kind of the prize at the end.”
Last year, Gophers heavyweight Tony Nelson and 184-pounder Kevin Steinhaus won Big Ten titles, helping the team pile up enough points for a second-place finish behind Penn State.
It was the Nittany Lions’ second consecutive conference title, and they are favored again this year. Penn State was the only Top 8 team to skip the National Duals, but it has three No. 1 seeds for the Big Tens in David Taylor (165 pounds), Ed Ruth (184) and Quentin Wright (197), and a No. 2 seed in Nico Megaludis (125).
For comparison, the Gophers have two No. 1 seeds — Nelson and Logan Storley (174) — and four No. 2 seeds in Nick Dardanes (141), Dylan Ness (149), Steinhaus (184) and Scott Schiller (197).
“We can’t worry about Penn State and what they’re going to do,” Robinson said. “We have to worry about us. We need to win the close matches and get bonus points. And that has to be kind of the rallying cry for the weekend.”
Penn State, Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio State are all teams to watch. Those are the only four squads with a wrestler seeded in each of the 10 weight classes.
Iowa has two No. 1 seeds in Matt McDonough (125) and Derek St. John (157), as does Ohio State in Logan Stieber (133) and Hunter Stieber (141).
The Gophers haven’t won the Big Ten team championship since 2007, the same year they won their last NCAA title. This season, they went 16-2 in dual meets, finishing No. 1 in the final USA Today coaches’ poll.
They didn’t lose after their 16-15 setback to Iowa on Jan. 26.
“After that … we really kicked into a new gear, training wise,” Storley said. “The Dardanes [Chris and Nick] are back wrestling better than ever. To have [125-pounder David] Thorn and all our lighter weights back at 100 percent really makes a big difference.”
“Ness has gone up 10 levels from the Southern Scuffle [Jan. 2] to now,” Storley added. “I think everyone’s feeling good, and we’re all coming together at the same time.”