Over the past several months, as the leaves fell and the snow arrived, the Gophers wrestling team kept asking the same question. And coach Brandon Eggum had no answer.
"Right up until we got our schedule last week, guys were still wondering whether there was going to be a season," Eggum said. "It just seemed like everything was continually getting put off or canceled because of COVID. There was just so much uncertainty."
With the big question settled, the 12th-ranked Gophers will begin tackling the more nuanced ones in Friday's season opener at No. 4 Nebraska. Their long-awaited schedule includes a nine-match, Big Ten-only regular season, followed by the conference championships March 6-7 and the three-day NCAA championships starting 11 days later in St. Louis.
The Gophers return five wrestlers who qualified for last spring's NCAA championships, which were to be held at U.S. Bank Stadium before the pandemic forced their cancellation. Top-ranked heavyweight Gable Steveson is looking for his first NCAA title after going 50-2 in his first two seasons. Brayton Lee, ranked No. 6 at 157 pounds, hopes to replicate the success he saw at 149 pounds last season.
There are new faces, too. Michael Blockhus, a transfer from Northern Iowa, starts the season ranked No. 19 at 149. Freshman Andrew Sparks (165) and redshirt freshman Marcos Polanco (141) are expected to make their college dual-meet debuts against the Cornhuskers.
Eggum praised his team for staying on task through months of uncertainty, as wrestlers practiced hard and managed their weight without knowing what the season might look like or when it might start. Now that it's here, one part of his message will stay the same.
"We keep preaching to be thankful for the opportunities when they come," said Eggum, entering his fifth season as head coach. "To be successful, you've got to be able to roll with the punches. And I think they've done a really good job of that.
"We've got a lot of young guys we're excited about, and good leadership from our veterans. They can't wait to compete."
Steveson already has solidified his hold on the No. 1 ranking. He competed in two recent senior-level events, dominating Wisconsin heavyweight Trent Hillger in September and defeating Nick Gwiazdowski — a two-time world championships medalist — 4-1 at the RTC Cup last month. Eggum said Steveson matured further last summer and returns as a more assertive leader.
The Gophers also will count on Lee, Blockhus, Patrick McKee (No. 12, 125 pounds) and Owen Webster (No. 19, 184). Eggum said there is strong competition at some weights, and the lineup is likely to change over the first few weeks of the season to give opportunities to several wrestlers.
With such a compact schedule, Eggum said Big Ten teams also are working together to create more chances for athletes to compete. The Gophers will take six extra wrestlers to Nebraska, and Eggum anticipates all six will participate in nonscoring matches. He said the team can bring 10 additional athletes to three-team meets, including next week's matchup against Michigan State and Maryland in East Lansing, Mich.
The goal is to get wrestlers as many matches as can be scheduled, to help make up for some of the opportunities lost in a short season with no open tournaments or nonconference meets.
"We have it planned out with Nebraska, and all of our guys should get a match," Eggum said. "In the multiple duals, you could maybe even make some small pools after the duals are done. That allows other guys to be prepared. It's good for their development and for their mental health, because that's the goal, to compete.''