- Allison Farrand/Daily
By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 9, 2014
Having defeated seven ranked opponents in the regular season and gone a surprising 6-2 in Big Ten play, the No. 7 Michigan wrestling team was primed to make a splash at the Big Ten Championships this weekend in Madison.
With six of 10 wrestlers making their tournament debut — including top-ranked heavyweight wrestler freshman Adam Coon — the weekend was supposed to be the young squad’s chance to solidify their mark in the nation’s best conference.
But the opportunity went unseized as the Wolverines (6-2 Big Ten, 11-4 overall) slumped to a disappointing eighth-place finish. After a season of shocking many elite programs and posting its best regular-season record since 2006, Michigan was shocked across the board in its worst Big Ten finish since 2010 and third-worst finish in school history.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed in how we performed,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland told MGoBlue.com. “As a team, we didn’t wrestle well the first day. We came back and wrestled much better the second day, but we had already put ourselves in a huge hole. I think that three-week layoff hurt us a bit, because we were not in that competition groove that first day.”
The biggest disappointment on the weekend was Coon. After going 29-1 in the regular season, the freshman was awarded a No. 1 seed and given a first-round bye with expectations to run the table. In the quarterfinals, Coon was eliminated from contention with a 3-1 loss to Penn State’s Jonathan Gingrich after a two-point takedown was waved off.
Things only got worse for Coon in the consolation round, as he lost to unranked Nick Tavanello of Ohio State, 6-5. With a 0-2 Saturday record, the freshman sensation was humbled in his biggest tournament yet. With two weeks to prepare for the NCAA Championships, Coon must find a way to regain his confidence if he is to attain his dream of a national title.
“He lost two close matches that could’ve gone either way, and that’s very frustrating,” McFarland said. “Looking back, this will allow him to refocus and get him hungry again. We saw a few things we can work with him on to prepare him (for the NCAA Championship), and he really just didn’t have the tournament he wanted. Luckily, he’s got plenty of time to refocus and get where he wants to be.”
With the team’s biggest weapon eliminated early, the rest of the team had to step up tremendously for the weekend to be deemed any sort of success.
Freshmen Brian Murphy and Domenic Abounader proved to be particularly up to the task, as both exceeded expectations over the weekend. Murphy — initially seeded No. 8 — battled his way back from a loss in the quarterfinals in the double-elimination tournament to face top-seeded Isaac Jordan of Wisconsin for the second time in the weekend, after carrying a 1-1 score into overtime. A takedown attempt by Murphy backfired, and Jordan countered for the victory as Murphy settled for fourth place.
Following a 9-1 loss to No. 1 Ed Ruth in the semifinals Saturday, Abounader could have followed suit of many wrestlers and taken Sunday off. Instead, the freshman went 2-0 over ranked opponents to take third, the best Wolverine performance of the weekend.
Despite starting the season on the bench, Murphy and Abounader rose to the occasion to lead Michigan.
“We had some young kids wrestle really well,” McFarland said. “For Abounader to get third at that weight class is really impressive, beating two kids that he had lost to during the season. I thought Brian Murphy wrestled well, getting fourth at another tough weight class.”
In addition to Coon, senior Dan Yates and freshman Conor Youtsey failed to perform to their seeding, both taking seventh in their weight class. With just 15 points separating the Wolverines from fourth place in the conference, every point mattered heading in, making the early losses all the more disappointing.
“We weren’t as aggressive as we needed to be,” McFarland said. “I thought there were some big bright spots, but there were also some weights that just didn’t perform as they are capable. We need a much better complete team effort.”
The Wolverines will have one more opportunity to put it all together in two weeks at the NCAA Championships in Oklahoma City. Michigan’s rise up in the rankings will be put to the test as the Wolverines look to avenge last season’s disappointing 33rd-place finish. With likely eight wrestlers competing in the tournament, McFarland is looking for a much better effort from everyone.
“We’re going to have some hard training between now and nationals,” McFarland said. “We need it. I think our guys got back into the competition groove, but I think we need some hard training for that last push between Big Tens and NCAAs.”