Though the Gophers wrestling team dropped a chance at the regular season Big Ten title, the Big Ten championships offer a shot at redemption.
After tying Penn State and losing to Iowa in the final two weeks of the regular season, the team will look to prove that it belongs with the class of the Big Ten.
“We’ve got a great opportunity to get revenge on Iowa and prove we’re better than Penn State,” Sonny Yohn said. “I think we all believe that we’re better than them, and none of us are happy with the tie or the loss. It’s a great second chance, and you usually don’t get very many of those.”
Minnesota (15-4-1, 7-1-1 Big Ten) is the only team in the conference to have a seeded wrestler in each of the 10 weight classes. Seeds are compiled based on votes from conference coaches and include the top eight wrestlers at each weight.
The Gophers will have an uphill battle, though, to take down the Big Ten crown. No. 7 Minnesota has five wrestlers ranked in the top three at their respective weights, but No. 2 Penn State has five wrestlers ranked. No. 1. Iowa and Wisconsin are also strong teams with top-end wrestlers.
The Gophers said they aren’t paying too much attention to the rankings, though.
After all, “It’s just someone’s opinion put on paper — no big deal,” Yohn said after joking, “If everyone says Penn State and Iowa are the only teams that can win, why are we even competing?”
Head assistant coach Joe Russell said the coaching staff is fine with any way guys choose to draw motivation, and he said a chip on one’s shoulder can be good for some of the wrestlers.
“If people are already counting them out, it can motivate some of the guys to go out and prove them wrong. That’s just human nature,” Russell said.
“I think the guys are excited and ready, and that’s important. We know we want them stepping out on the mat with confidence.”
The tournament works differently than a regular dual meet both in terms of format and scoring.
Wrestlers are seeded one through eight, and the three unseeded wrestlers in each weight class are thrown into a random draw for matchups so teams aren’t penalized for having high-seeded wrestlers.
It becomes important because along with bonus points for pins and technical falls, teams are given advancement points each time a wrestler moves on to the next round. For that reason, byes could negatively affect a team.
In addition, wrestlers are given placement points based on where they finish the tournament. Points are awarded in descending order from first place all the way down to eighth.
“At this time of year, you’ve got to worry about yourself,” Zach Sanders said. “It takes less of the focus of the team, but at the same time, really the best thing you can do for the team is just be prepared for your own matches.”
Still, the team’s dual loss to Iowa and tie with Penn State cost the Gophers a chance at the Big Ten regular season title.
“We learned what we needed to do to get better at those two duals, and we were close enough that if we improve more than they do over this month that we can catch them,” Russell said. “They’re both great teams, so it’ll be a difficult challenge, but life is about challenges.”
If the team is tense entering the weekend, it was difficult to tell by watching midweek practices. On Wednesday, the starters and a few assistant coaches wadded up a ball of tape and were playing an improvised form of soccer.
“We’re off the mat a lot more just so guys are excited when they get on the mat to compete,” Sanders said. “We’re peaking now, so we should be wrestling better than ever.”
Yohn agreed, saying that it may prove to be a positive that his team wasn’t clutching to a No. 1 seed all season long.
“I think we’re peaking at the right time, and those are the teams that are going to win,” he said. “Coming in [as] the underdogs is the best way to win.”
Yohn may well prove to be a critical piece of the puzzle. After missing most of the year with a knee injury, the All-American returned to the lineup a few weeks ago but dropped a decision to Iowa’s Luke Lofthouse and is seeded fifth at 197 pounds.
He said he not only doesn’t pay attention to the rankings but that he’s put together “four or five real good days” in a row and has improved significantly since first coming back.