Scott Schiller has spent far too many afternoons getting his face rubbed into wrestling mats to let this final opportunity pass him by.
Never considered a phenom like some of his more heralded teammates, the Gophers’ 197-pounder has carved out a niche as one of the nations’ top wrestlers at his weight largely through his ability to leave his ego in his locker and do everything, no matter how painful, he could to reach his lofty goals.
“I call him the quiet professional,” coach J Robinson said. “He’s very methodical, and the thing is, he’s good all the time.”
Schiller, a senior from West Fargo, N.D., is one of eight Minnesota wrestlers set to compete in the NCAA Championships, which run Thursday through Saturday in St. Louis.
The Gophers have finished in the top three in each of the past three seasons (second, third and second), the second-longest streak of such success in team history. Not, however, what Robinson strives for.
“You go there to win the championship,” he said. “Nobody goes in thinking they want to finish second. Why go at all if you’re not trying to win?”
Much of their hopes lie in the performance of Schiller, whose tenacity has resulted in a fifth-place finish in 2013 and a third-place medal in 2014. While others on the roster may get more attention — senior Chris Dardanes, for example, is undefeated and seeded No. 1 at 133 pounds, and Dylan Ness is seeded No. 3 at 157 pounds — it’s wrestlers like the No. 5-seeded Schiller who will determine the Gophers’ team fortunes. And he knows that personal success will pay dividends twofold.
“My focus all year has been on winning the national championship,” said Schiller, who carries a 24-5 record into the tournament. “It hasn’t been on peaking or anything like that.”
Growing up in North Dakota, Schiller took to wrestling before it took to him. His is a family of wrestlers, so he was pinned many times long before he ever set foot on a mat. All that did, Schiller said, was make him want to get better.
“When I was a little kid, it was always something to do,” he said. “I remember playing baseball and I got bored with it. It was always standing in line and waiting until it’s your turn. In wrestling, you’re always moving, always doing something.”
Problem was, there wasn’t always someone around to do it with. So he set his mind to pursuing the sport in any way possible.
“There aren’t as many possibilities to wrestle and get better in North Dakota as there are here,” he said. “Sometimes, I’d drive an hour and a half just to find someone to wrestle. Or I’d go to the colleges and wait in the room until someone needed a partner, then I’d jump in.”
Not surprisingly, he ended up on the wrong side of plenty of matches. In eighth grade, he was brought up to the West Fargo varsity because of injuries. The results, Schiller said laughing, weren’t pretty.
“I think I won, like, two matches all year,” he said. “I was constantly getting beaten up.”
At the same time, however, he was solidifying his passion for wrestling. Rarely taking a day off, he made himself into one of North Dakota’s most decorated wrestlers, winning three state championships. “And I got a little revenge on some of the guys who had beat me before,” he said with a smirk.
His work ethic impressed Robinson. “He decided he wanted to be a wrestler. He fits the template we have. We recruit wrestlers who already have that work ethic.”
When he signed with Minnesota, however, he was right back where he started. Those North Dakota championships meant nothing.
“When I got here, there were guys in front of me like [All-America] Sonny Yohn,” Schiller said. “I had to earn my place.”
He spent most of his free time training and putting himself through some of Robinson’s most torturous workout routines.
“We have a thing that I put all of the freshman through that is very difficult called the circuit. They pretty much hate it,” Robinson said. “Scott never balked. He embraced it. He walked by the machine and said ‘This is what made me good.’ ”
Last season, Schiller won his first 24 matches and appeared to be on track for a national title. He fell short, and he has turned that into a learning experience.
“Nobody remembers me winning the first 24 matches last year. They do remember who won the national championship,” he said.
“My goal this year was to go undefeated and be a national champion. Being undefeated didn’t work out, so I’ll just have to settle for being a national champion.”