The Minnesota wrestling team finished the 2008-09 regular season ranked 11th in the nation. They placed fifth by two points at the Big Ten championships and 14th at the NCAA tournament . They boasted three All-Americans.
By most standards, a solid season. But the Gophers don’t operate by most standards. No team with 12-straight top-10 finishes at the NCAA tournament, three national titles in that span and 1st or 2nd place finishes in the last seven Big Ten championships does . No, by Minnesota standards, this was a bad year.
Problem was, the Gophers lost All-Americans Mack Reiter, C.P. Schlatter, Roger Kish and Manuel Rivera to graduation after the 2007-08 season . And three-time All-American Dustin Schlatter redshirted the ’08-09 season, leaving junior Jayson Ness as the only remaining All-American on a team that has boasted 29 in the past 12 years .
So apart from Ness, the team charged with continuing the Gophers’ daunting tradition of success was young and inexperienced. Minnesota’s lineup at this year’s Big Ten championships included three redshirt freshmen, four sophomores, two juniors and a senior. Seven of those 10 had no collegiate championship experience.
Outside the Gophers’ own wrestling room, no one expected much from such a green group. The preseason USA Today/InterMat/NWCA poll pegged Minnesota at No. 12 , almost an insult for a team that spent the majority of the 2007-08 ranked in the top five.
Low expectations followed the Gophers all season, but head coach J Robinson can riff off a number of times his team outperformed them, perhaps even wrestling above their ability. For example, the third place finish at the Las Vegas Invitational, where Minnesota lost only to Nebraska and Cornell , the eventual fourth and fifth place teams, respectively, at the NCAA tournament . Or an 18-16 dual meet victory against then-No. 5 Ohio State, this year’s national runner-up .
Robinson called Minnesota’s 15-8 dual meet record “pretty respectable considering our team,” adding “a lot of guys stepped up.”
A trio of wrestlers stepped up in the postseason as well. Based on seeding alone at the national championship, only Ness, seeded 6th, was slated to become an All-American, which requires an eighth place finish or better. Sophomore Mike Thorn was 10th at 141, redshirt freshman Zach Sanders 11th at 125 and senior Tyler Safratowich and sophomore Ben Berhow were unseeded at 157 and 285.
Sanders and Safratowich finished 6th and 8th, however, to each earn his first honors, and Ness finished third, his only loss a 1-0 decision decided solely by riding time to Ohio State’s Reece Humphrey.
For Safratowich, it was a fulfilling end to a rocky college career. He was denied a berth in the national tournament last season despite a 28-10 record and wins against the 5th- and 8th-ranked wrestlers .
“Before I went out there each time I was thinking, ‘win or lose, this is it for college wrestling. This is the last time I’m going to be competing in this type of environment,’” Safratowich said. “So I just tried to make sure I was having fun. And when I have fun I seem to wrestle the best, so it was a win-win situation for me.”
Safratowich and Gordon Bierschenk, who has a year of eligibility remaining but will graduate this spring, are the only wrestlers leaving the program. The Gophers could potentially be just as young and inexperienced next year, especially because this year’s freshman class, widely regarded as the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, will have completed its redshirt season and be ready to compete for starting spots.
But are they starting a year late? Could wrestling some true freshman have helped Minnesota this season?
Perhaps, Robinson said, but he stands by the decision to redshirt the entire class.
“Going into the year we had the No. 1 recruiting class and there was a lot of pressure to wrestle some of the freshman,” he said. “[If we did] we probably could have had a better dual meet record, we might have scored a few more points … but sometimes you have to look at the long term and not let the short term cloud your vision. You can’t lose sight of where you want to be.”
Where he and the Gophers want to be is back on the top of the podium at the NCAA tournament next year. They’ve already started talking about it.
“Next year we have to make sure we work harder and put everything in,” Ness said. “We’ll have guys back with a lot more experience so we can win a national title next year.”
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