ST. LOUIS - Gophers freshman Dylan Ness woke up Friday morning as a seventh-seeded afterthought, basically fodder for the bigger dogs.
Just over 12 hours later, the Bloomington native has morphed into the feel-good story of the 82th annual NCAA wrestling championships at the Scottrade Center.
Ness came from out of nowhere to stun previously unbeaten Jamal Parks of Oklahoma State 3-2 in a morning quarterfinal before zipping into the 149-pound championship with a late-match charge in the semifinals, an 8-5 decision over Tyler Nauman of Pittsburgh.
"I feel like I've been a totally different wrestler these last couple days," Ness said. "I started believing in myself and what I could accomplish,"
Ness (28-4) has one more giant step ahead. He will face top-seeded Frank Molinaro (32-0) in the championship match Saturday night. Molinaro beat Ness three times during the regular season, including a 15-0 pasting in the Big Ten tournament two weeks ago.
Ness' rise to the top has come as a surprise to many, but not J Robinson.
"We told him at the start of the season that he could be an NCAA championship-caliber wrestler," the Gophers coach said. "He knows what he wants to do. He's a competitor, and he's putting it together at the right time."
The 6-foot Ness has peaked in St. Louis. He rolled to a pair of opening-day decisions before stunning Parks, who entered the match 32-0 and had beaten Ness 6-5 and 10-4 during the regular season.
But the new and improved Ness took control late in the third period to post a thrilling 8-5 victory that led to the championship berth.
"I tried to use what I learned when I lost to him," Ness said.
The run from nowhere by Ness was one of two highlights on the day for the Gophers, who struggled in the team standings. Sophomore heavyweight Tony Nelson advanced to the championship with a hard-fought 4-3 victory over Clayton Jack of Oregon State in the semifinals.
The second-seeded Nelson (31-2) will face fourth-seeded Zachery Rey (26-2) of Lehigh in the championship round.
Gophers freshman Logan Storley reached the semifinals with 3-1 victory over Ethen Lofthouse of Iowa in the quarterfinals. Storley (26-7) then dropped a 17-1 decision to unbeaten Edward Ruth of Penn State in the semifinals.
Five other Gophers -- Zach Sanders, Chris Dardanes, Nick Dardanes, Kevin Steinhaus and Sonny Yohn -- all lost in the quarterfinals. Steinhaus had a 21-match winning streak end.
Those defeats put a damper on the Gophers' hopes of knocking off rival Penn State. The defending champion Nittany Lions lead the team competition with 124 points. The Gophers are a distant second with 101 1/2. Iowa is third (93) followed by Cornell (86). The 22 1/2-point defcit is almost mathematically impossible to overcome in one day.
"We wanted to be in the running for this thing, and it looks like we're not," Robinson said. "We lost a couple important ones this morning that hurt us."
Sanders, Nick Dardanes, Steinhaus and Yohn remain alive in the consolation round and compete Saturday morning.