The toughest part of the season — a month-long stretch packed with three national tournaments and everything on the line — is finally here for the Gophers wrestling squad.
Minnesota will compete at the National Duals this weekend before battling for a Big Ten title in a few weeks and an NCAA championship in a month.
Winning the National Duals doesn’t hold the same prestige as a Big Ten or NCAA title, but it’s the last true dual meet of the season.
It’s the last time all 10 Gophers wrestlers will watch matches from the same bench, as the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments are split up by weight class.
“This tournament is just as much of a national championship as the tournament at the end of March because of the overall dual aspect,” sophomore Scott Schiller said. “They crown a team championship at the other two tournaments … but the feel is a lot different.”
Schiller, who has started at 197 pounds for the Gophers all season, said the team aspect of matches adds to the intensity of dual meets.
“It’s different because at both the Big Tens and NCAAs, you’re really more focused on yourself, and you don’t get to see your teammates wrestle,” Schiller said.
Minnesota heavyweight Tony Nelson said the National Duals are “the true team championships.” He said they serve as a chance for the team to build momentum heading into the two tournaments in March.
“It worked for us last year,” Nelson said. “We won the National Duals and finished second in the Big Ten and in the NCAA tournament, so that was a big swing for us in our season.”
The Gophers are the third seed in the tournament and will take on Virginia Tech in the first round.
If Minnesota advances past the Hokies, it will likely compete against Iowa in the second round and Oklahoma State in the final.
The Gophers avenged early-season losses a year ago to Iowa and Oklahoma State en route to the National Duals title.
Minnesota’s only dual losses this season have come from those teams.
“It’s kind of set up to have the same story this year,” Schiller said, “but we’re not really looking at one or two teams specifically.”
Nelson, who tallied key wins at last year’s National Duals, said revenge will be on his mind. Nelson defeated the two heavyweights he would likely see from Iowa and Oklahoma State earlier this season.
“We were all pretty upset with those losses earlier this season,” Nelson said. “I hate losing, and to knock them off would be a pretty sweet feeling.”
Assistant coach Luke Becker said this tournament is important for the team’s mindset entering the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. He said he feels like the team is starting to peak at the right time of the year and that a strong performance could propel it toward success.
“We’ve lost a couple close ones this year; that kind of bothers our guys,” Becker said. “I think this one means a lot for all of them.”