ST. LOUIS — In a span of about 15 seconds, Tony Nelson went from wrestling in a tied national championship match to throwing both of his fists in the air, saluting the Minnesota fans and celebrating his first career national championship.
Nelson was the Gophers’ lone champion at the NCAA wrestling championships Saturday in St. Louis, but Minnesota crowned seven All-Americans and finished second to defending champion Penn State in the team standings.
Nelson (heavyweight) was in a battle with Lehigh’s Zach Rey in a championship bout that appeared destined for overtime. But Nelson had other ideas.
“I knew [overtime] was a possibility — he’s got a lot of overtime matches. I didn’t want it to go there,” Nelson said. “But we got in that scramble, and I pulled it out there and got the win.”
With about seven seconds remaining, Nelson got a two-point takedown on Rey, held on and received an extra point for riding time to win 4-1 and capture his first NCAA crown.
Nelson was able to ride Rey for half of the second period, which seemed to take a lot of energy out of the larger Lehigh heavyweight.
“He was holding a tripod there for a while and once I broke him down, I think that took a lot of energy out of him when I was on top,” Nelson said. “I think it wore him down quite a bit. It helped me out a lot.”
The match was almost a replica of the one that Nelson won to advance to the championship match the night before. On Friday night, he defeated Oregon State’s Clayton Jack 4-3 using another last-second takedown.
Minnesota had a roller coaster ride in the 2012 NCAA wrestling championships, but it finished second — where it sat after each day of the three-day championships.
Penn State scored 143 team points and essentially led the competition throughout. The Nittany Lions had the title wrapped up before the championship matches started.
Even before Saturday’s consolation matches were finished, Minnesota’s chances of winning the team title were bleak. Minnesota finished second with 117.5 points.
Dylan Ness (149 pounds) joined Nelson and entered the last session of the tournament with a chance of capturing an individual championship.
Ness lost his championship match to Penn State’s Frank Molinaro 4-1. Ness making it to the finals was a shock to many.
As a No. 7 seed, he was the third-highest seed to make it to the championship match, and he did so at a weight class that featured two undefeated wrestlers.
Before Saturday’s match, Ness knew what he was up against in Molinaro.
“He just stays low,” Ness said Friday. “I guess it doesn’t help that I’m 6 feet [tall], and he’s 5 feet [tall].
“And five feet wide,” he added with a laugh.
Penn State lists Molinaro as 5-feet-5-inches tall.
On his trek to the finals, Ness wrestled a couple of close matches. He knocked off No. 2 seed Jamal Parks from Oklahoma State 3-2 in the quarterfinals. Parks had been undefeated on the season.
Ness then beat the No. 6 seed before falling to the top-seeded Molinaro.
“The big difference for me was improving on my feet,” Ness said Friday. “My defense of when people shoot in and sprawling — that was a big difference for me.”
Minnesota had more All-Americans — seven — than any other team in the tournament. Penn State and Iowa each had six. All-American status is awarded to the top eight finishers in each weight class.
Zach Sanders (125), Chris Dardanes (133), Logan Storley (174), Kevin Steinhaus (184) and Sonny Yohn (197) joined Ness and Nelson as All-Americans.
The team had five All-Americans in last year’s championships, where it finished seventh.
“To come here and win, we had to have an excellent tournament,” head coach J Robinson said. Robinson was named the 2012 National Coach of the Year after the tournament’s conclusion Saturday.
“We had a great first day, and then we had a stumble Friday morning, and then we caught back up [Friday] night.”
The Big Ten had 34 All-Americans at the tournament. The Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association was second with 14.
The Big Ten also had 12 wrestlers in the finals Saturday evening and won seven of 10 individual championships.
Sanders’ third-place finish at 125 was the highest in the four-time All-American’s career.
After a disappointing 7-4 Friday morning loss to PSU’s Nico Megaludis, the Gophers’ senior won four matches in the consolation bracket to finish third. Second-seeded Sanders defeated No. 6 seed Frank Perrelli from Cornell 6-4 in overtime in the third-place match.
“The last few years I always realized that I had another year, or two or three left,” Sanders said. “This year after I lost, it was like everything just went down the drain, but I had to keep wrestling for my teammates, my coaches and my family.”
Robinson said Sanders’ four-time All-American selections are a “pretty unbelievable accomplishment.”
“There might be a total of 10 or 12, at the max, four-time All-Americans in the history of Minnesota in all sports,” Robinson said.
Sanders is the fifth four-time All-American in Minnesota wrestling history.
Friday morning was not kind to the Gophers. Minnesota lost its first three matches of the session when Chris Dardanes and Nick Dardanes followed Sanders’ loss with defeats of their own.
Chris Dardanes lost in the championship bracket to No. 2 seeded Logan Stieber from Ohio State and made his way through the consolation bracket to the third-place match before getting pinned by Iowa’s Tony Ramos to finish fourth.
Nick Dardanes lost to Michigan’s top-seeded Kellen Russell 7-3. He was then eliminated after losing his next match in the consolation bracket.
The Gophers started the tournament hot with three pins in the first session. They advanced eight in the championship bracket past day one but cooled off Saturday.
“Part of it is we’ve got some young guys,” Robinson said. “Part of it is the tournament in itself — you’ve got to have a degree of luck.”
Robinson also pointed out that inconsistencies in officiating, with eight mats going at once at a point in the tournament has an impact, saying that “one ref will call it different than another ref.”
Yohn, a senior, was unable to capture an elusive NCAA title in his last go around, but he did finish a career-best fifth.
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