Two road conference duals offered Minnesota a chance to start the Big Ten season by making a statement.
Yet the wins over Michigan State on Friday and Michigan on Saturday were two very different statements.
Against the Spartans, No. 5 Minnesota proved to be beatable, as some wrestlers entered the match flat. Luckily for the Gophers, sophomore Sonny Yohn (197 pounds) and junior Ben Berhow (heavyweight) weren’t going to let their team drop its first conference dual of the season.
With two matches remaining, Minnesota was down 16-12. But decisions by Yohn and Berhow gave the Gophers six points, the 18-16 victory and an unblemished Big Ten dual start.
Going into his match, Berhow said he knew the team needed a win, but he tried to focus on technique instead of the outcome.
“That’s what’s going through my head before the match, is just go out there, be tough, go forward, attack, be aggressive,” Berhow said. “If you think about those things, you don’t think about winning or losing, you just think about wrestling, then the winning takes care of itself.”
Sophomore Zach Sanders (125) tried to give Minnesota a needed spark with a win by fall, putting the Gophers up 6-0.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, the one-two lightweight punch of Sanders and senior Jayson Ness (133) was incomplete in East Lansing, because Ness stayed in Minneapolis nursing an injury. In a match where the Gophers most needed the second-ranked Ness, they instead turned to redshirt freshman Thane Antczak .
Antczak found himself overmatched against the nation’s No. 1 wrestler at 133, Franklin Gomez . Gomez took a major decision for the Spartans to keep them in the match early.
The remaining matches were close, including a Michigan State win by one point at 165, and no matches ended in more than a decision.
But Yohn and Berhow clinched the close match for the Gophers.
Minnesota head assistant coach Joe Russell said some extensive winter-break training may have played a role in Minnesota’s sluggish start. Whatever the reason, Friday’s meet provided a good learning experience for a team that hoped to start the conference schedule strong.
“You can’t have a flat match this time of year,” Russell said. “You’ve got to be ready to go every time you go out there.”
The team quickly grabbed hold of that sentiment, making the kind of statement the Gophers hoped for: They can respond after a tough match with the necessary intensity.
Sanders again started strong for Minnesota by winning a major decision. But on Saturday, the Gophers never looked back, taking a 30-6 win over Michigan. Only two of the 10 wrestlers lost, although Friday’s hero, Yohn, was one of them.
Sanders said the team missed its emotional leader in Ness during the weekend, and he said Friday’s match should not have been as close as it was. Sanders gave the coaching staff credit for preparing the team to wrestle stronger Saturday.
“Before the match on Saturday … we really turned it up and everyone was pretty excited going out there,” Sanders said.
The Gophers can’t afford to start next weekend slowly, as they host Wisconsin on Friday and Purdue Sunday .
“I think our guys need to understand that every Big Ten dual is going to be a dog fight,” Russell said. “Every match is going to be a difficult one where it’s going to be a battle of wills, and you just have to have a little bit stronger will than the other guy.”
Russell said he is hopeful that Ness and senior Dustin Schlatter will be ready to return from their injuries in time to wrestle this weekend.
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