To say NCAA champion wrestler Jayson Ness had a good month of March would be about as appropriate as saying Joe Mauer made a little money in his new Twins contract.
Having already graduated with a degree in technology education in fall 2009, Ness could focus solely on wrestling in the spring, and in doing so redefined the term “finishing strong.”
Here’s a brief recap of Ness’s final season as a Minnesota wrestler:
Finish the season undefeated with a measly record of 31-0?
Finish the year with 19 pins and in the process shatter the all-time pins mark by 23?
And he closed it all out with a stunning March. Ness won the Big Ten meet with a flawless 4-0 record to bookend his Gophers career with the Big Ten championships, but he was just getting started.
By Ness’s own admission, those accomplishments are memories he will remember forever and were the result of a lifetime of hard work and dedication both on the mat and in the gym.
But Ness said the moment that tops them all, the moment that instantly brings a smile to his face, is what happened March 20 in one of the greatest wrestling matches in Gophers history.
Ranked No. 1 in the country at the 133-pound level, Ness advanced to the final NCAA championship match against Iowa’s Daniel Dennis, the No. 2-ranked wrestler in the weight class.
Dennis took a 4-1 lead in the third and final period after Ness drove his head into Dennis’s knee, giving Dennis two points for the takedown. Ness regained one point on an escape and trailing 4-2 with 20 seconds remaining he looked poised to capture the title.
For Ness, this was the last shot at the only mountain left unclimbed in his four-year wrestling career.
Already having won the Big Ten title twice — his freshman and senior seasons — the NCAA individual championship alluded Ness, with his best finish coming his sophomore year when he took second.
Staring down another second-place finish, Ness made his move with 17 seconds to go, sliding out of Dennis’ grip before making his move with just seven seconds remaining.
“It was kind of weird because with 20 seconds left I was down by two, so I’m just thinking I need a takedown, that’s all I need to go into overtime,” Ness said. “I started coming at him … and I ended up getting it and putting him on his back. I look at the refs, seeing if I got the near fall, and I couldn’t tell what they were thinking. So I look over at the coaches, and they’re acting like idiots, so I figured I must have won the match.”
Not only did Ness get the takedown to tie the match at 4-4, but he was awarded two more points for the near-fall, avoiding overtime and winning the thrilling match 6-4, sealing his first NCAA Championship in his final match with the Gophers.
“It’s amazing,” Ness said. “People don’t understand all the hard work that goes in. My whole life, my whole career here, it’s just been a lot of time, and it finally paid off at the end. You really can’t describe that kind of a feeling.”
While Ness was already known in wrestling circles as the best wrestler in his weight class, the mainstream notoriety gained from winning the legendary championship match — the play was named the No. 1 play of the weekend on ESPN’S SportsCenter despite being in the midst of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — put him in rarefied air as a nationally known wrestler.
“Seeing yourself on ESPN, it’s unreal,” Ness said. “Wrestling’s never on there, [so] to see myself on there, them talking about me, it was super cool.”
Ness received guidance on dealing with the newfound popularity when Minnesota alumnus and Super Bowl-winning football coach Tony Dungy called Ness to offer his advice.
“He pretty much told me the situation that I’m in is a lot different than anyone else has been in because of the exposure that I’ve had with ESPN and all that other stuff,” Ness said. “He said, ‘You’re going to be hit with a lot of speaking engagements, a lot of camps, a lot of things.’ He just said, ‘Make sure you don’t say yes right away to anything. Make sure you tell them, ‘I have to think about it, I have to pray about it,’ and then he said to wait a little bit, reflect before you say yes.”
Less than a week after winning the individual championship, Ness had another piece of hardware to add to an ever-expanding collection as he was named the recipient of the Dan Hodge Trophy, given annually to the nation’s top wrestler.
“I was really surprised to win that award; it’s the highest honor in college wrestling,” Ness said. “To be named that with all those other guys out there, it’s just an amazing feeling.”
Ness became the first Minnesota wrestler to win the Hodge Trophy in the award’s 15-year history. But setting and breaking records is nothing new to Ness.
The wrestler finished his career a four-time All-American, just the sixth wrestler in the storied Gophers program to accomplish that feat.
“I think it’s something special,” Minnesota coach J Robinson said. “It’s a pretty unique club to be in at the University of Minnesota when you think of all the athletes that have come through here. It’s a pretty special group of people to be with.”
The Bloomington, Minn., native leaves his career as a two-time Big Ten champion, reigning Big Ten Wrestler of the Year and national champion.
As for what’s next, Ness is currently in graduate school at the University, working on his Master of Education. While a future career has yet to be decided, he does know one thing that will remain with him: wrestling.
“I’m just kind of going to take my time and see where I get into,” Ness said. “I could be teaching, coaching, [but] whatever I do I’m going to be involved in wrestling. I know that for sure.”