Each week, a different piston fires at precisely the right time in the Gophers’ wrestling engine.
Scott Schiller set the stage for a tight, two-point victory over Northwestern.
Chris Dardanes finished the job against Michigan, earning the deciding points to close out a one-point win.
Logan Storley and Brett Pfarr recharged the Gophers in a 20-19 thriller over Illinois.
Early dominance from Dylan Ness and Nick Wanzek was critical in another one-pointer, a 17-16 victory over defending national champion Penn State in the Gophers’ last time on the mat.
The timely shared success has the Gophers undefeated and ranked No. 1 by InterMat heading into the final home dual meet of the season against No. 2-ranked Iowa, but coach J Robinson wants all the pistons in motion Friday night at Williams Arena.
“Right now, it’s kind of like we’re running on five or six pistons,” Robinson said, eager to end the streak of nail-biters. “We need all 10 pistons running when we get to the national tournament. We need that consistency. We need everybody on the same page, everybody running hard. And once you do, that gets you over the hump.”
After Iowa’s visit, the Gophers have two road matches before they hit the national duals and the conference and NCAA meets. In that March Madness, they’ll learn if they have improved enough to end Penn State’s and Iowa’s seven-year chokehold on the national title. The Nittany Lions have won four consecutive team titles, and the Hawkeyes won the three before that. The Gophers’ last national title was in 2007, the last time a team other than Penn State or Iowa captured first place.
The Gophers have finished runner-up twice in the past three years, including last season. A visit from the No. 2 Hawkeyes allows the Gophers an opportunity to identify the gaps they’ll need to fill over the next eight weeks to get back on top.
“We have a team that is poised to be where they need to be, and we’re improving a lot,” Robinson said. “This dual meet is going to tell a lot about where we are.”
The 100th meeting of the rivals features two 10-0 teams both claiming to be the nation’s best. The Hawkeyes use the NWCA/USA Today poll that ranks them No. 1 and the Gophers No. 2. Minnesota prefers the InterMat poll, which flip-flops the two. To further the who’s-number-one debate: InterMat’s tournament ranking has Iowa No. 1 and Minnesota No. 3.
Rankings will cease to matter starting at 6 p.m. Friday. Eight of the 10 matches could feature two ranked wrestlers. Iowa has 10 ranked individuals, seven rated fifth or higher. The Gophers have eight ranked, including two No. 1 wrestlers in Chris Dardanes and Ness.
“Having a great match this weekend would just make sure we’re heading in the right direction as the season ends,” Chris Dardanes said. “For us to win a national title, we gotta make sure we’re putting up a lot of points, making sure we’re getting falls when guys are on their backs, or getting that extra take down to get that major decision. Bonus points are really going to be what separates us from other teams.”
The Gophers’ young talent will also play a significant role. Though the Gophers are ranked No. 1, they boast “only” five returning All-America wrestlers in their lineup — Chris Dardanes (133 pounds), Nick Dardanes (141), Ness (157), Storley (174), Schiller (197). Robinson is convinced they’ll need 10 to win a national title. The Gophers won it all in 2001 with 10 wrestlers finishing in the top eight at the NCAA meet — thereby earning All-America status — and no individual national champions. Ethan Lizak (125), Jake Short and Seth Lange (149), Wanzek and Brandon Kingsley (165), Pfarr (184) and Michael Kroells (heavyweight) all have shown signs of All-America potential, with three of them ranked in their weight class.
“Just the fact that we’ve been so close to an NCAA championship the last three years, it hurts a little bit,” Storley said. “We’ve got two months to prepare. All of us are still growing and need to change some things up with our wrestling, but we’re taking the right steps.
“This is a big weekend. … It sets the tone that we’re here to win a national title. A lot of people have been doubting us all year, even though we’re still undefeated. So I think [a victory] would really take that doubt out of people’s minds.”