OKLAHOMA CITY – Tony Nelson, the Gophers’ two-time heavyweight champion, sat slumped on a wall as a trainer taped his left ankle.
Quite the microcosm of the Gophers’ final session at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships on Saturday night.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way, not for a four-time All-America, not for a Minnesota team that won seven matches earlier that day.
But it’s what happened.
Penn State won its fourth consecutive national title with 109.5 points.
The Gophers finished second at 104 despite leading 104-101.5 entering the finals.
“You’re right there, you got a chance to win it, then it slips away from you,” Gophers coach J Robinson said. “We came here to do something, and when you fall short, it’s painful. You carry it for a while.”
With Penn State in the lead after Ed Ruth’s victory at 184 pounds, Nelson led in the third period of his title match against North Carolina State’s Nick Gwiazdowski. Then Gwiazdowski scored a takedown. Nelson twisted his left ankle and had to take injury time.
The match resumed, but Nelson couldn’t score. He lost a 4-2 decision, and with it, the opportunity to be a three-time national champion.
“It’s disappointing,” Nelson said. “My goal was to be three-timer, and I fell one short. Not the best way to end a career.”
Despite Nelson’s loss, 157-pounder Dylan Ness entered his championship match against Oklahoma State’s Alex Dieringer, an old high school rival, with a chance to put the Gophers back on top. And if Ness could pin his opponent, the Gophers would have a 4.5-point lead entering the final match, which featured Penn States unbeaten 165-pounder David Taylor.
Ness came in with three pins in his past four matches, but couldn’t hang with the savvy Dieringer. Dieringer dominated from the start and notched a 13-4 major decision to take the title.
“Once I got that nearfall, I was up 5-0 I think, I knew I had it locked,” Dieringer said. “I know how to wrestle smart when it comes to a guy like that. I’ve wrestled him many times before.”
The loss officially removed the Gophers from title contention. Oklahoma State finished third, and Iowa and Edinboro rounded out the top five.
The losses by Nelson and Ness altered Saturday’s narrative for Minnesota. In the morning session, the Gophers made a charge at a team title as 174-pounder Logan Storley and Scott Schiller (197) each won third-place matches, David Thorn (133) and Kevin Steinhaus (184) won fifth-place matches and Daniel Zilverberg (165) took seventh.
The huge performance erased the half-point lead Penn State had on Minnesota at the beginning of the day.
Storley, who beat longtime friend and rival Robert Kokesh of Nebraska via a 3-1 sudden victory, said the nail-biting team standings motivated the Gophers.
“Every time you get a little tired or your body’s hurting, you look at that team score and you know that every match, one point or half a point is going to make a difference,” Storley said.
Penn State got a big break in the 141-pound fifth-place match, when Zain Retherford won by forfeit over Northern Iowa’s Joey Lazor, who was injured and could not wrestle. That gave the Nittany Lions two bonus points in the team standings — points that loomed into Saturday night’s session.
Good as the Gophers were in the consolations, it came down to the finals. But even in defeat, they had reason to go home with pride, nearly upsetting the heavily favored Nittany Lions.
Earlier in the day, Robinson referenced the book “Wild at Heart” by John Eldredge. The book says men are hard-wired with three motivations: be a hero, live an adventure and save the maiden.
There were no maidens to save in Chesapeake Energy Arena, but Robinson acknowledged his team was part of something special, championship or not.
“They’ve got great fight,” said Robinson, whose team handed Penn State its only dual loss of the season. “They’re warriors.
“They’ve been a part of an adventure, and they got to be the hero by scoring points. So they’re living part of their dream, and it’s a cool thing to be around and witness.”