BY LIZ NAGLE
Daily Sports Writer
Published March 18, 2012
When the Michigan wrestling team arrived in St. Louis, the Scottrade Center was nearly empty, the podium showed no sign of those that stood on its planks, and no one knew what would unfold in the days to come.
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The Wolverines were ranked 14th, but climbed to a No. 11 finish with a national champion, fifth-year senior Kellen Russell, on their side.
Russell stole the show with an undefeated record in the tournament and his final matches of a nearly perfect career.
Beginning Thursday, the stadium started to fill in record-high numbers as spectators watched wrestling unravel. The combined three-day 112,393 attendance tallied a new mark for the NCAA Wrestling Championships and sold out the arena for the first time in its 82-year history.
That environment can be intimidating and daunting — fifth-year senior Justin Zeerip knew that from his past three experiences.
“I know exactly what the atmosphere is going to be like,” Zeerip said before heading to St. Louis. “It’s going to be loud, so I know I need to focus on one match at a time and also need to focus on blocking out the crowd.”
The wrestlers seemingly used that energy to their advantage in the early rounds. But the stadium’s intensity eventually became too great to ignore.
Russell, Zeerip, senior Zac Stevens and redshirt sophomores Eric Grajales and Dan Yates all won their first-round matches with ease. But the way the bracket was laid out, redshirt freshman Max Huntley and redshirt junior Ben Apland squared off against high-seeded opponents, which didn’t turn into favorable upsets.
In the 197-pound contest, Huntley faced Missouri's sixth-seed Brent Haynes, who won a major decision over him in Michigan’s last dual meet of the regular season. In both attempts, Haynes left Huntley scoreless.
Huntley peaked at the wrong time in his rookie campaign. He had a successful start to the season and his momentum pushed him to continual wins through the mid mark, including a second-place finish in the Mat Town Invitational. But after a minor injury, he couldn’t pick up from where he left off.
Nevertheless, Huntley was elected to one of the at-large bids for the tournament, and he remained confident before his first match.
“I’m just as good as any of these guys here,” Huntley said. “Or better.”
Huntley, Apland and Yates, however, left the tournament with less-than-desirable records, similar to the Big Ten Championships results.
Apland, in his second-straight NCAA appearance, was bracketed against Oregon State’s No. 3 seed, Clayton Jack, where he fell 4-1. But Apland bounced back in the heavyweight category with a 5-0 decision over Pittsburgh’s T.J. Tasser.
“I’ve been working at practice on having fun,” Apland said the day before nationals. “Have fun, no stress.”
Yates, too, had a similar mental strategy going in. But the way the bouts unfolded, he and Apland most likely lost that sense of optimism.
Starting with 330 wrestlers in a full bracket, each weight class weeded out opponents one-by-one, and the Wolverines saw their lineup thinning.
After day one, Huntley was eliminated from the competition and Apland, Yates and Zeerip were all posted in consolation matchups after dropping early rounds. Each tried to make a comeback but couldn’t pull himself to All-American status.
Though Grajales qualified for the quarterfinals, he fell in consecutive matches en route to a 2-2 record. He got caught in a lopsided match in a 10-2 major decision against Penn State’s top seed, Frank Molinaro, who won the 149-pound Big Ten crown. Grajales then found himself in a deep deficit to Binghamton’s fourth-seeded Donnie Vinson and couldn’t recover.
It was Zeerip’s fourth tournament appearance without placing, and he was coming off a seventh-place Big Ten finish that he wasn’t content with.
Though he was ranked 11th, Zeerip came close to polishing off Cal Poly’s No. 6 Ryan DesRoches in a vengeful effort, but fell short in the upset bid during the tiebreaker. It was a comparable outcome to the Cliff Keen Invitational on Dec. 3, when DesRoches snapped Zeerip’s win streak and rallied for a narrow win in overtime.
But Zeerip wrestled back in consolations in hopes of reaching the podium. He came across another familiar face in his final 174-pound opponent, Pittsburgh’s Ethan Headlee, who fell 3-1 in sudden victory off of Zeerip’s single-leg takedown.