After two-time NCAA champion Tony Nelson graduated last spring, the Gophers wrestling program had a vacant starting spot at the heavyweight position.
Redshirt sophomore Michael Kroells has taken Nelson’s spot and has big shoes to fill.
The wrestling team has had 22 individual national championships, and seven of them have been heavyweights.
Kroells, who is 2-0 to start the season, has a chance to add to that winning tradition.
Head assistant coach Brandon Eggum said Kroells has a chance to become great because of his discipline.
“He spends a lot of time working with the coaching staff and looking at himself as a wrestler and figuring out what his weaknesses are,” Eggum said. “Those are the things that are necessary if he wants to be a great heavyweight.”
Passion for wrestling
Kroells’ father introduced him to wrestling in first grade, and he decided to give it a shot.
“I was not very good as a young kid, but as I got older, I started to do a lot better,” Kroells said.
He kept with wrestling throughout his life and realized as a freshman in high school that he might be able to compete at the collegiate level.
“In high school, I [just] wanted to win a state championship,” Kroells said. “I was not even ranked my freshman year, but I ended up placing in the state tournament. … I was like, ‘Wow, I still have three years left. I still have a lot of time to [get better].’ That’s when I realized that I could make a career out of [wrestling] and use it to get into college.”
More than 10 schools, including Central Michigan and Wyoming, were trying to recruit him.
But he already had the choices narrowed down to two: Cornell and Minnesota.
“I knew Cornell had a great academic program, and they had a pretty good history for wrestling too. [But] Minnesota being my home-state school, and a powerhouse even when I was in high school, eventually drew me here,” Kroells said.
As he committed to Minnesota for wrestling, Kroells had another big decision to decide on — his major.
An academic challenge
Coming into Minnesota, Kroells said he knew that he wanted to do something related to science and math, but he wasn’t entirely sure what that was.
“When you fill [forms] out for college, the applications would always ask you what you wanted to do. When I was in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do exactly. I had no idea, and so I just … picked chemical engineering.
However, once he arrived to Minnesota for orientation, Kroells realized that he wanted to do something more physics-related.
“People made aerospace [engineering] sound like one of the toughest majors in the engineer department,” Kroells said. “So, I thought that I might as well try out one of the harder ones. If it doesn’t work out, I can always drop out of it.”
But he hasn’t dropped out. He’s excelled and achieved a 4.0 GPA in past semesters.
Kroells said he’s glad he made the decision to stick with aerospace engineering.
Roommate and teammate Brett Pfarr, who has known Kroells since fourth grade, said Kroells is very intelligent, but he also puts in a lot of work.
“Every night, he would do three, four hours of homework, and he is very committed to [it],” Pfarr said. “He is a smart guy, but he definitely puts a lot of effort towards his classes.”
Goal for the season
Even though Kroells isn’t in the top-8 right now, he said it doesn’t make a huge difference to him.
“I definitely expect myself to be an All-American this year, but I’ll be honest [that] I am not there yet. … I have a whole year to keep improving. I know that as long as I keep getting better, the results that I want will come eventually,” he said.
Eggum said Kroells has potential to become an All-American, but there are still things he needs to improve on.
“He’s got to get better on top, he’s got to be able to be quicker at getting away, and he has to be able to score more points for the team,” Eggum said. “He has already proven that he can compete with the best heavyweights in the country, but the big thing is that he has to show that he can be consistent and stream together a handful of good wins.”