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Wrestling starts road to Big Ten title this weekend at the EMU Duals

By James Baenen, For the Daily
Published November 14, 2013

On Saturday, the No. 14 Michigan wrestling team will begin its season at the EMU Duals with high expectations: a Big Ten title.

“Winning a Big Ten title is always the expectation, there’s no question about it,” said Michigan coach Joe McFarland. “Overall, I’m excited about where the program is at right now.”

The Wolverines hope to bounce back after finishing sixth in the Big Ten last year, and by all accounts, they have the talent to do so.

On the surface, the program seems to be thriving. The incoming freshman class is widely considered the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation and, through top-notch recruiting and development, McFarland and his coaching staff have assembled one of the program’s deepest wrestling squads in recent history. Still, only one freshman from the country’s top-ranked recruiting class will receive regular mat time – heavyweight Adam Coon.

“We can afford to redshirt a lot of guys,” McFarland said.

The team also returns five wrestlers that competed in the NCAA Championships last year, and according to redshirt senior Dan Yates, there is no shortage of competition within the squad.

“We have a huge talent pool,” Yates said. “Every weight class has guys competing.”

For example, in the 125-pound weight class, redshirt freshman Connor Youtsey and redshirt senior Sean Boyle are competing for time, and according to Yates, “both of these guys could be All-Americans.” The competition is a result of the increased depth within the team and immensely helps the Wolverines, as every wrestler is forced to perform at a higher level.

“There’s nothing like having a top-of-the-line partner that will push you towards being your best,” Yates said.

Yates hopes to use this increased competition to his advantage in the 165-pound class.

“I’ve far underperformed what I’m capable of,” Yates said. “There’s not a guy in the nation I can’t beat in a single match, it just comes down to consistency.”

The wrestling team will need to be at its best if it hopes to compete for a Big Ten title as, despite the top-15 ranking, seven other conference teams are ranked ahead of Michigan while two others are in the Top 25.

No wrestler won a Big Ten title or achieved All-American honors in the 2012 season, but there are high hopes leading up to the first meet on Saturday. Redshirt junior Max Huntley, who stayed in Ann Arbor over the summer to train, has his sights set high in the 184-pound class.

“My main goal is to be an NCAA All-American, and eventually a Big Ten champ,” Huntley said.

Seniors Chris Heald and Eric Grajales, sophomores Rossi Bruno and Ben Ralston and freshman Adam Coon have also earned spots in the lineup, along with junior Jake Salazar, who is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament last season. Angelo Latora and Steve Dutton, recovering from shoulder surgery, will compete for time.

The Wolverines have the talent to compete at a high level, but it takes more than just talent to win. A successful team needs leadership and motivation as well, and according to McFarland, they have both.

“Right now we’re led by a couple of seniors who haven’t quite accomplished what they’d like, but they seem really focused, and they’ve had a good offseason,” McFarland said.

“We’ve really been focusing on building one big family,” Yates said. “This is the most tight-knit team we’ve had, so I definitely think it will be a great year, and I’m excited to see how we wrestle this weekend.”

With a mix of experienced upperclassmen and younger wrestlers, all of them talented, along with chemistry, leadership and motivation, the Wolverines believe they are in place to have a huge year.

“We’re going to get better and better,” McFarland said. “We’re looking to win some Big Ten titles. We could also want to win some national championships, and I think we’ve got the start of a group that can do that. They’re going to do some special things here at Michigan.”