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Lehigh's Zachery Rey, left, and the Gophers' Anthony Nelson wrestled in Saturday's NCAA heavyweight championship match.

Jeff Roberson, AP

U finishes second, crowns a champ in heavyweight Nelson

  • Article by: STEVE OVERBEY
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • March 18, 2012 - 1:00 AM

 

ST. LOUIS — Tony Nelson made a promise to himself on the night of Dec. 4, 2011.

The Gophers sophomore heavyweight had just dropped his second successive match after winning the first seven of the season.

"I just kind of had a mental lapse that weekend," Nelson recalled. "I told myself that was never going to happen again."

It didn't.

Nelson capped a perfect second-half run with a dramatic 4-1 victory over defending champion Zachery Rey of Lehigh on Saturday in the heavyweight championship match of the NCAA Wrestling Championships before a sellout crowd of 18,919 at the Scottrade Center.

The Cambridge native ended the season 32-2 and became the first sophomore heavyweight champion in school history.

Nelson's title helped the Gophers to a strong second-place showing in the team standings with 117.5 points. Defending champion Penn State amassed 143 points by winning three individual championships.

The second-seeded Nelson won his final 25 matches this season and saved his best for last. He recorded a two-point takedown with seven seconds left in the third period to break a 1-1 tie. The slick move brought a roar from the large Minnesota contingent in attendance. Nelson looked at his supporters and flexed his muscles seconds after the final horn sounded.

"I kind of felt him break and I got under both legs and scored," Nelson. "I didn't want to go into overtime. I wanted to end it there if I could."

The thrilling victory capped off a banner night for the Gophers. Veteran coach J Robinson was selected as the Coach of the Year for the third time in his 26 years at the helm.

But the brightest spotlight belonged to Nelson, who outscored his opponents 22-4 with one fall in the five NCAA matches.

"It's been a blast, it's just fun to be out there," Nelson said. "Twenty-five is a good number -- I'll take it."

Nelson's performance brought a burst of emotion from the usually-stoic Robinson.

"He's grown up a lot this year," Robinson said. "He went out there and realized that this was his chance, and he made the most of it."

Gophers freshman Dylan Ness turned in a courageous effort in dropping a 4-1 decision to top-seeded and unbeaten Frank Molinaro of Penn State in the 149-pound title match.

Seventh-seeded Ness (24-9) more than held his own against the veteran Molinaro, a four-time All-America, who closed his season at 33-0.

Ness came out aggressively in each of the first two periods but trailed 3-0 heading into the last period. Ness got an escape point, but Molinaro used a riding-time advantage to close the match.

"I just went out there aggressively. I just believed in myself," Ness said. "I thought I wrestled pretty tough. The difference was that first takedown."

The Gophers, with seven All-Americas, made plenty of noise during the consolation rounds early Saturday, Second-seeded Zach Sanders (31-4) nailed down third place with a 6-4 victory over Frank Perrelli of Cornell at 125 pounds. With the win, Sanders becomes the fifth four-time All-America in school history.

"It's been a good ride," Sanders said. "It was a lot of fun."

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