College wrestling is no easy feat — particularly in the Big Ten — but it’s even harder when wrestling as a true freshman.
Gophers wrestler Mitch McKee is experiencing that firsthand this year, holding down the starting spot at 133 pounds despite lacking any collegiate experience prior to the season.
“Every match is like the state finals,” McKee said. “It’s a lot different training-wise [from high school].”
McKee was a star wrestler at St. Michael-Albertville High School, where he won three Minnesota state championships. He’s used to winning, something that hasn’t come quite so easy in college.
He is 17-13 thus far, good enough for a No. 17 national ranking.
Not bad, considering who he has had to wrestle.
Mckee’s schedule has consisted of 13 ranked opponents to date, and while he has beaten just two, the experience gained is extremely valuable.
“He’s wrestled all the best guys — a lot of them extremely well,” said head coach Brandon Eggum. “He’s continuing to battle and continuing to get better — I think he’s a guy that could go out and do some really good things for us in the Big Ten tournament.”
A major factor in easing McKee’s transition has been assistant coach Dustin Schlatter, who won a national title at Minnesota his true freshman year, the first rookie in program history to do so.
Schlatter works closely with McKee, and likes what he has seen to this point.
“I think [McKee’s] handled himself very well,” Schlatter said. “It’s not about wins and losses, but about just getting better — improving, developing until March.”
Even though McKee is typically the least experienced wrestler on the mat, Eggum says Schlatter’s impact is very valuable.
“Dustin’s a guy who has experienced [wrestling as a true freshman] firsthand,” Eggum said. “It’s probably harder for other coaches to talk about what it would be like competing as a true freshman when you’ve never experienced that.”
The experience is similar to what another Gophers wrestler, Ethan Lizak, went through in his first collegiate season.
An injury at 125 pounds led to Minnesota voiding Lizak’s redshirt, and he was thrown into collegiate wrestling in the middle of the season.
His first three dual matches came against top-10 wrestlers, including eventual national champion Nathan Tomasello of Ohio State.
After holding an overall record of 28-15 and qualifying for the NCAA tournament his freshman year, Lizak was able to redshirt last season, something he says allowed him to build off his true freshman experience.
“I think I just knew what I needed to do more to compete with the best guys,” Lizak said. “I improved my top wrestling a lot, as well as wrestling on my feet.”
Both Lizak and McKee will look to expand on their successes in the postseason, starting with the Big Ten tournament in three weeks.