The Gophers' wrestling team have their eyes set on the start of the 2019 season.
For Minnesota, the season begins Friday, Nov. 1 when they take on Cal State Bakersfield. Last season, Minnesota finished 14-3 (7-2 Big Ten) and took fourth place in the Big Ten championships. The top-four finish was a first for the Gophers since 2015. New faces and a new year mean new opportunities for the Gophers, and the team is ready for the full swing of the 2019 season.
"Personally, I'm feeling really good, and team-wise, I think we're going in the right direction," redshirt senior Carson Brolsma said. "I think everyone's feeling really good. I think more importantly, everyone's kind of anxious and excited to start competing and get the season underway."
The roster looks very different from a year ago as the Gophers will be without several wrestlers who were part of the starting lineup, including Steve Bleise, Ethan Lizak and Sean Russell. Yet, the team still has a strong returning core featuring Mitch McKee and Devin Skatzka.
However, the team's most important returner, Gable Steveson, remains suspended from all team activity, according to a team statement, due to an ongoing Hennepin County investigation after Steveson and teammate Dylan Martinez were arrested on suspicion of criminal sexual conduct. They have yet to be charged.
Friday also marks the return of former Gophers wrestler Manny Rivera, head coach of Cal State Bakersfield, to Maturi Pavilion. Rivera was a starter on the Gophers' 2007 national championship team and spent time on the Minnesota coaching staff as a graduate and administrative assistant. Rivera is in his fourth season with Cal State Bakersfield, and the Gophers are expecting tough competition from his squad.
"We're excited to see him," said Gophers head coach Brandon Eggum. "He's a great guy and he'll have these guys ready. When he wrestled for us, he was a very intense wrestler, wrestled at a high pace, so I think that's one thing he can bring to his program. The mentality, 'This is how we wrestle, we wrestle like a Big Ten school but we have the ability to be scrappy and stay on the mat.'"
While the Gophers expect difficult competition from Rivera's squad, they feel up to the challenge. Eggum is pleased with the Gophers' progress thus far in practice and is ready to see how they'll stack up in competition. While the Gophers return some veteran experience, there are also a lot of new, younger faces in the lineup who will need to be ready for the grueling Big Ten conference. The upcoming match will be an opportunity for the younger wrestlers to get their feet wet.
"I'm excited to watch all 10 of them, I know every guy is as important as the next. That's the fact of the matter, especially in duals, each guy has the opportunity to go out and score points," Eggum said. "That'll be something we'll be keying on this weekend, 'How do we finish the match?' We want to start fast and we want to finish hard too."
With the season approaching, it's a reminder that Minneapolis will be the final stomping grounds of collegiate wrestling. The 2019 NCAA Championships will be held at U.S. Bank Stadium, the first time the event has ever been held at a football stadium. For Brolsma, a Minnesota native, that will come with added significance and will be a perfect way to close out his collegiate career.
"It's going to be awesome. I'm excited to see how it's going to lay out and I already have tons of family and friends that have bought tickets," he said. "It's going to be [a] really unique experience for us homegrown Minnesota boys, especially since I'm a senior, [Mitch] McKee's a senior and there's a couple other seniors that are from Minnesota. To end our season and our careers in our hometown, we're really excited for it."