After last year's NCAA wrestling championships were canceled, the National Wrestling Coaches Association stepped in to award All-America honors. The Gophers' Brayton Lee was one of the recipients for his efforts in a redshirt freshman season that saw him compile a 25-6 record at 149 pounds.
Lee appreciates the gesture, but he wants to become an All-American through his performance in the national tournament.
"It's nice to be honored for hard work, and winning matches. That's fun and all, but it's a war out there," Lee said. "You have to earn it. I still want that and want to push myself against the best a few matches in a row."
Lee can take a big step toward that goal on Saturday and Sunday in the Big Ten championships in State College, Pa., which serve as the qualifying event for the NCAA championships. He's the No. 3 seed at 157 pounds and the Gophers' highest-seeded wrestler aside from top-seeded and unbeaten heavyweight Gable Steveson.
Minnesota, No. 11 nationally in Intermat's tournament rankings, is looking to break through against competition that includes No. 1 Iowa, No. 2 Penn State, No. 5 Nebraska and No. 6 Michigan. To do so, the Gophers will need big performances from others beyond Steveson.
"It's pretty simple: Have fun, be more aggressive than the other guy and score more points than the other guy," said Lee, a Brownsburg, Ind., native who finished fourth at 149 pounds in last year's Big Ten tournament.
In Lee, Gophers coach Brandon Eggum sees a wrestler with a perpetually positive attitude who's honing his skills through stiff competition. He has a 7-2 record, with his only losses to top-seeded Ryan Deakin of Northwestern and No. 2 Kaleb Young of Iowa.
"He loves to wrestle, and I love a statement that he made as a freshman last year after coming off a really tough match," Eggum said. "He said, 'I'm never worried about the points that are on the board or the time that's left. I get to do what I love, and I'm grateful and thankful for that.' "
Lee made the jump from 149 to 157 this season, and he's happy to avoid cutting weight and the mental grind it entails. "Last year was tough. It was always on my mind," he said. "This year, I'm a lot healthier mentally and physically."
Helping Lee improve has been the presence of true freshman 165-pounder Andrew Sparks, against whom he often practices. Sparks, 8-1 and the No. 5 seed, has given the Gophers a jolt of energy, especially from someone who's only in his fifth year as a wrestler. "He wrestles a high pace, and he's only going to get better," Eggum said.
Steveson, the defending Big Ten heavyweight champion, carries a 26-match winning streak into the tournament. Second-ranked Mason Parris of Michigan, who lost 8-6 to Steveson in last year's Big Ten final, and third-ranked Tony Cassioppi of Iowa add to a strong field, and a wild card could be Penn State freshman Greg Kerkvliet, the former Simley standout.
"He's set some very, very high goals," Eggum said of Steveson, who's a contender for the U.S. Olympic freestyle team. "You look at his weight class, and even at the Big Tens, there are three world champions [cadet or junior] at that weight. What a field. It'll be a fun weekend."