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Wrestling to open conference season Friday

James Coller/Daily
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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writers
Published January 9, 2014

Big teams, big stage, big rewards.

If you were to throw a dart at a large map of the Midwest, odds are high that you wouldn’t land too far from the hometown of an elite Big Ten wrestling program. Boasting the past seven NCAA champions, five top-10 teams and 10 in the latest Top-25 rankings, it’s clear the conference dominates on the mat.

“It’s another level, no question about it,” said Michigan coach Joe McFarland. “It almost goes without saying, especially that upper tier of teams. It’s a very challenging stretch for us. We have to be ready to go every single week. But it’s also very exciting for our team and the best wrestling you’ll find anywhere.”

Those rankings and records will be put to the test Friday when No. 18 Michigan takes on No. 20 Purdue.

For the past four seasons, Michigan (4-2) has struggled in the rigorous conference play, failing to finish above fifth since 2008. But unlike past seasons, McFarland believes that with the addition of several new successful starters, this year’s team is entering conference play prepared to take steps forward.

“We’ve added a lot to our lineup,” McFarland said. “The younger guys have brought a lot of positive energy to the team. Their mindset and energy have been a good injection this year. They’re going to be the leaders on some special teams in the future.”

The future begins now with freshmen Conor Youtsey, Brian Murphy, Dom Abounader and Adam Coon. The four first-year starters are a combined 46-11 in matches this season, and only Abounader remains unranked in his weight class.

In addition to the strong class of freshmen, the Wolverines’ older competitors appear to have improved from last season. After an early loss to Kent State, Michigan has been gaining steam, recording impressive fifth and third-place finishes at the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas and the Midlands Championships in Evanston, respectively. The Wolverines also took down then No. 15 Maryland, and appear to be more than prepared for Big Ten play.

With six ranked wrestlers — compared to the Boilermakers’ one — the Wolverines look better on paper. But anyone around for Michigan’s surprising 19-18 loss to Purdue last year knows that in Big Ten play, rankings can be thrown away once the match begins.

“We didn’t wrestle our best last year against them, and we were very disappointed in the loss,” McFarland said. “This year, our guys are putting in extra time and are ready to go start the Big Ten season on the right foot.”

In McFarland’s eyes, the key to doing well in conference play is having a quick start in every match. Since falling to a notoriously slow and conservative Stanford on Nov. 24, Michigan has put an emphasis on being aggressive in matches from the opening whistle. The approach has worked well so far, but McFarland knows that the importance of hitting first only increases in the second half of the season.

“We’ve been talking a lot as a team about how we need to be ready to wrestle as soon as we get on the mat,” McFarland said. “We’re going to try and set the pace early like we did against Maryland. We want to be competing right away.”

With a team as youth-driven as Michigan’s, the jury’s still out as to exactly where the Wolverines will finish in the Big Ten when all’s said and done. But despite the uncertainty, McFarland knows exactly what the goal is.

“We’re chasing the teams at the top,” McFarland said. “We are gauging ourselves against these teams and looking to match them every week. We’ve been working hard, and this is our first opportunity to see what we can do.”