The Gophers' wrestling team knew early on they'd be relying heavily on their underclassmen during the 2019-2020 season.
Of the 10 athletes that compete in each dual, six underclassmen — Patrick McKee, Brayton Lee, Ryan Thomas, Bailee O'Reilly, Garrett Joles and Gable Steveson — all regularly appear in the lineup for the Gophers. Together, they have a combined 47-19 record in duals and have helped the Gophers to a 9-6 record overall.
That's an impressive feat competing in what head coach Brandon Eggum calls the toughest conference in the country. The young roster quickly had to adapt to the grind of the Big Ten, and have excelled in the process.
McKee, Lee and Steveson are all ranked in the top 15 in their respective weight classes, with Steveson taking the top spot among heavyweights, according to InterMat Wrestling. McKee and Lee are having standout freshman seasons and it comes as no surprise to redshirt senior Carson Brolsma, who predicted big years for the duo prior to the start of the season.
"I think Pat could have a really good year. I think all the freshmen in the lineup ... Brayton Lee, he's going to be a dog for us. He's going to be awesome," Brolsma said in October. "He's going to be a contender for a national title and All-American status right out of the gate."
As if he had a crystal ball, Brolsma was right. McKee and Lee have strung together 38 wins for Minnesota, and Lee has proven he's a contender at the 149-pound weight class, currently ranked No. 7 in the nation. He's also coming off a wild come-from-behind victory against Penn State's Jarod Verkleeren in a match he was trailing 3-0 heading into the third period. It was Lee's second victory in as many weeks where he was down going into the third period.
"[Lee]'s been a leader for the guys and wrestled a really solid season," Eggum said. "He's a guy that's just thinking more about wrestling versus winning and losing. I think that's just a really good mindset."
Lee, along with Steveson and Thomas, were bright spots for the Gophers in a brutal 31-10 dual loss to the defending national champion Nittany Lions. But despite the loss, the Gophers are poised for a bright future on a team chalked full of freshman and sophomore talent.
Eggum has been impressed with the way his young roster has competed throughout the season.
"Bailee O'Reilly's been another guy that kind of came from nowhere. ... He's done a great job. Ryan Thomas stepping in now has beat a couple ranked guys," he said. "Then you look at a guy like Pat McKee who's had some big wins for us as well. It seems like he's really started to settle into his own right of being a top contender at 125 pounds."
With six underclassmen regularly starting for Minnesota in duals, the future is bright at Maturi Pavilion. The Gophers aren't overlooking the present, however, and with the NCAA championships in Minneapolis, they believe they can make a run this year.
"I feel like we have the right culture. I know we do the right things, and I know it's just a matter of time for some of us to start really getting after it every single time we get out there," Lee said. "I think our team will just keep growing. Yeah, we have a young team and I think our team's going to be something serious soon. We can do it this year."