Minnesota has a starter ranked in the top-8 in the nation at nine of their ten weight classes, and eight are returning all-Americans. The Gophers won their first NCAA team title last season, and are 13-0 in dual meets this season. The closest challenge for J Robinson's grapplers in dual meet competition was the 21-12 win in Stillwater over Oklahoma State. However, in the Midlands Tournament earlier this season, Minnesota finished 3rd behind Iowa and Iowa State. Minnesota did not have three of their starters at the meet, but Iowa was without two as well.
Iowa has won 20 national titles to the one for Minnesota, but despite tradition, this meet will be a tremendous challenge for the Hawks. Unlike the Minnesota lineup that features a solid to great wrestler at every spot, Iowa has been very inconsistent at 141, 165, and 197. According to the latest rankings, the Gophers are favored at 8 of the 10 weights. In addition, although Mike Zadick and Steve Mocco are favored to win for the Hawks, Minnesota features very good wrestlers at those positions that are ranked in the top five. Conversely, although Iowa is favored to lose in the other eight matches, the Hawks could pull the upset in four or five of those matches.
It could play out where Iowa wins five or six matches, yet still loses the dual meet. Although there are many Hawkeye wrestlers capable of pulling the upset and even scoring team bonus points, Minnesota will be more likely to score bonus points, especially at 141, 165, and 197. Iowa leads the all-time series, 58-20-1.
After the Hawks wrestle in Minnesota on Friday, they then travel to Madison on Sunday to take on the Badgers. Former Hawk grappler Barry Davis still holds the Iowa records for single season and career wins, but he hasn't been quite as successful as a coach. He is 74-68-6 in nine seasons at Wisconsin, and is 9-6 this season. The team is ranked 18th in one poll and 20th in two others. The Badgers will be tough opponents for the Hawks at certain weights, but the big showdown is Friday. Iowa leads the Wisconsin series, 65-7-3, and have won the last 27 meets in a row.
Robinson and his Gophers have been hyping this meet for weeks in the Twin Cities, and are shooting to break Iowa's NCAA attendance record for a dual meet. Instead of having the meet at the small Sports Pavilion where they usually wrestle, or even at Williams Arena where they last hosted the Iowa dual, they moved it into the 18,000-plus Target Center where the tickets are amazingly overpriced compared to any other Gopher home meet. So between the price gauging of Robinson and the Gopher Athletic Department combined with what Ticketmaster does to lighten wallets on a regular basis, the Hawks could make some Gopher fans pretty grumpy if they pull off the upset. Win or lose, this rivalry is big enough that Robinson doesn't need to create artificial names like "Border Brawl I" or make prizes like winning the belt of the enemy state's governor! Come on J, college wrestling does not need to be more like pro wrestling!
A look at the weights:
125 – Sophomore Luke Eustice has a high ranking of 6th in one poll, and is 15-5 on the season. He was 2-0 last weekend in dual competition and has won his last four matches. He is 0-1 vs. Minnesota senior Leroy Vega, losing a 5-3 decision at the Midlands Championships. Vega is 22-2 and ranked #2 in the nation, but is a distant 2nd to #1 Stephen Abas of Fresno State. Given the nickname "Victory" Vega by the Gopher coaches, the classless Vega was dominated by ex-Hawkeye Jody Strittmatter over the last two years. Vega could not hang with Jody in either the top or bottom positions, but did well on his feet. Eustice is better on his feet, but doesn't have Jody's ability to control with his legs and score from the top and bottom positions. This could be a very good match. Vega was 3rd in the NCAA meet last season.
Junior Tony Black of Wisconsin is 13-3.
133 – Sophomore Cliff Moore has been very good since returning from a knee injury, but he can even further establish himself as an NCAA contender if he wrestlers well this weekend. Cliff is 20-2 and ranked 5th after beating several rated wresters in the last few weeks, but this weekend he could climb to 3rd or higher if he beats #1 Ryan Lewis of Minnesota and #4 Kevin Black of Wisconsin. Lewis is 19-0 and 1-1 versus Moore in two matches from last season. Black is 16-3 and won his only match versus Moore two years ago when Moore defaulted due to injury.
According to the rankings, Moore should lose both matches, but Hawk fans should still like his chances. Outside of getting caught and pinned by Johnny Thompson of Oklahoma State in the dual meet a few weeks ago, Moore has been wrestling as well as anyone else in the weight class. Robinson and Zalesky talked at the Midlands and decided to throw out the coin flip determining where the meet will start. That means the grand finale will pit Iowa's #1 freshman Steve Mocco against #5 Gopher heavyweight Garrett Lowney, who placed third at the NCAA meet last year as a freshman. This should help Iowa as they usually wrestle well when Eustice and Moore start the meet. Neither is favored to win, but if they can win one of the two at least, it should be a close meet.
141 – Who will wrestle for Iowa? Will Iowa give up bonus points? These are the questions that most fans will be asking on Friday. Senior Marc Juergens is 20-6, but only 2-3 since moving from 133 to 141. Last weekend, he lost by major decision to Robert Sessley of Ohio State and lost 5-3 to John Giacche of Northwestern. Junior Luke Moffitt is 14-5 and pinned Josh Ballard of Northwestern in a 149-pound match last Sunday. Moffitt has been trying to get his weight under control as he was cutting 10 pounds at times in less than two days before several meets. Senior Chad Erikson of Minnesota is 14-2 and ranked anywhere from 4th to 6th, while Grant Hoerr of Wisconsin is 18-9. Erikson is a returning all-American.
149 – Senior Mike Zadick is ranked #1 and will be favored in his match over #2 Jared Lawrence of Minnesota. Lawrence is 22-1 and his only loss this season has been to Zadick at the Midlands, 5-2. Zadick has been wrestling like a national champion, as his offense and positioning have been outstanding in almost every match. His record is 23-0 after beating Jamarr Billman of Lock Haven in the N.W.C.A. All-Star Dual on Monday.
Many of Mike's victories this season have been major decisions over opponents that have beaten Mike at times in past seasons. Keaton Anderson of Ohio State was the latest victim last Friday, as Mike won by major decision even though Anderson beat Zadick twice last season. Much like Anderson, Zadick was 1-2 versus Lawrence going into the NCAA meet last season, but Zadick beat him 17-5 in the consolation bracket on his way to a 3rd place finish. Lawrence finished 6th at the meet. Although Mike now leads the series 3-2 after his win at the Midlands, this should be a good match.
Wisconsin redshirt freshman Tyler Laudon is 14-13.
157 – Junior Matt Anderson is 22-7 and ranked 7th, but #3 Luke Becker of Minnesota will be a heavy favorite. Becker has usually wrestled well against Iowa when two-time NCAA champ T.J. Williams was in the lineup in the last couple of years, but Anderson has not proven himself in big dual meets. Matt has had some good wins this season, but has come up short in tough dual meets against Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. He faced tough competition in those meets, but Becker is the same caliber of wrestler as the other four schools provided, as he was 4th at the NCAA meet last season.
Becker is 22-3, while sophomore Adam Turner of Wisconsin is 13-7
165 – Iowa might have a chance at this weight if Ben Shirk was healthy and wrestling like last season, but that is not the case. The all-American has been banged up all season and is currently out with a knee injury. Instead, redshirt freshman Cory Connell will fill in. Shirk could be out until the Big Ten Tournament.
Connell is 12-16 overall, but is 0-6 at 165. Although he is 157-pounder, the staff does not have any true 165-pounders that are ready to step in. Connell has given up team bonus points in several matches this year, and U of M junior John Hardy is capable of scoring bonus points for his team, as he is 15-6. However, he is the only Gopher not ranked in the top-8.
The Wisconsin match could be interesting as sophomore Ryan Lewis is 8-15.
174 – This is another key match in the Minnesota dual as #8 Tyler Nixt faces #7 Gopher Jacob Volkmann. Both are sophomores, and Nixt is 23-6 while Volkmann is 18-5. The only real difference is experience as Volkmann was in the U of M lineup last season. Volkmann finished 4th at the NCAA meet last season, while ex-Hawk Gabe McMahon finished a disappointing 6th after wrestling well for much of the season. McMahon was 4-0 versus Volkmann last season, while Nixt beat McMahon in the Iowa Wrestle-offs. Nixt is 0-1 vs. Volkmann, losing a decision at the 2000 Kaufmann-Brand Open.
Wisconsin redshirt freshman Brad Reinke is 19-9.
184 – The Jessman Smith-Damion Hahn rivalry is well documented. Hahn is 6-1 vs. Smith, but the last four decisions have been extremely close. Hahn won a 5-3 decision in overtime at the dual meet in Iowa City last season, 4-2 and 4-3 decisions at the 2001 Big Ten Championships, and a 3-1 decision in the consolation round of the 2001 NCAA Championships. Smith lost those matches after leading late in the 3rd period in three of them.
After getting his diet and weight under control this season, Smith has been a different wrestler. He is 26-3 and ranked 4th nationally. After two seasons of just missing all-American status, Smith looks like a good bet for a top-6 finish at the NCAA meet. Not only did Cael Sanderson of ISU move up to 197, but Jessman has been beating wrestlers who used to beat him like Hahn. He beat Hahn at the Midlands this season. Smith not only gets another chance at beating Hahn this weekend, but he also gets a shot at Ralph DeNisco of the Badgers. DeNisco is 19-6 and beat Smith 16-8 in the dual meet last season. Hahn is ranked anywhere from 2nd to 5th and is 20-7. He finished 5th at the NCAA meet last season.
197 – Owen Elzen of Minnesota will be a heavy favorite over redshirt freshman Trey Clark. Elzen is 23-2 and ranked either 2nd or 3rd, while Clark is 9-8 and still looking to gain experience and confidence. Clark has some offensive capabilities to keep this match close, but Elzen finished 3rd at the NCAA meet last year.
Jereck Horton of Wisconsin is 4-11.
HWT – Last year at this time it was Tommy Rowlands of Ohio State and Garrett Lowney of Minnesota that were making big impacts as freshmen, but this season they have taken a back seat so far to true freshman Steve Mocco. Hopefully the meet is close enough that this match can make the difference in who wins or loses. Mocco is 25-1 while Lowney is 18-3. Mocco beat #1 ranked Rowlands last week for the 2nd time this season, and now he is in the top spot. The win over Rowlands saved the dual meet for Iowa on the road in Columbus. Neither heavyweight is considered big or tall – they both win with athletic ability and power. Mocco is better on his feet and is great in tie-ups.
Either Dave Neumyer (8-7) or Justin Staebler (10-5) of Wisconsin will wrestle on Sunday.