BY DANIEL WASSERMAN
Daily Sports Writer
Published March 6, 2011
Junior Kellen Russell entered the Big Ten Championships in Evanston, Ill. this weekend looking for a tune-up for Nationals in two weeks.
For a few moments on Saturday, it looked like his perfect season could come to a halt. But it was no surprise when Russell — the nation’s top 141-pound wrestler — stormed back to the top of the podium.
“I’m glad I was able to win three (titles),” Russell said. “I know there a lot of really good wrestlers that haven’t been able to do that, but I’m just trying to concentrate on winning my first national title rather than thinking about my three Big Ten titles right now, because my real, long-term goal is to win at Nationals.”
The success of redshirt freshman Eric Grajales — who finished as a runner-up in the 149-pound weight class — was a surprise and helped lead No. 11 Michigan (5-3 Big Ten, 11-5 overall) to a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten Tournament.
Russell became the 10th Wolverine to win three Big Ten titles and next year will have a chance to become Michigan’s first to win four.
The High Bridge, New Jersey native cruised in the championship match over Minnesota’s Mike Thorn — No. 3 in the country — 8-4 and extended his perfect season and 33-game winning streak.
“I’m happy I was able to come out here and wrestle as well as I did,” Russell said. “To win my third Big Ten Championship, I had to wrestle two of the toughest guys in the country, so that was good experience, a good warm-up for getting ready for Nationals.”
To win the title, Russell had to go through the toughest competition in the nation. The Big Ten’s 141-pound weight class features the nation’s top four wrestlers, and it almost caught up to Russell.
In the semifinal match, Illinois’s No. 4 Jimmy Kennedy forced overtime with a late surge, but Russell came through with just three seconds remaining in overtime to advance.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen anybody better in overtime than Kellen Russell,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said. “He’s got this inner confidence in himself and he’s just a great competitor who refuses to lose, and boy, what a great quality that is to have.
“He’s just a great competitor. I’ve been saying that all year, but he’s such a great competitor and just the way he focuses from round-to-round. His weight class was the toughest in the Big Ten, and he just knocked them down, one-by-one.”
Grajales — the No. 6 seed — used upsets over two top-10 nationally ranked opponents to advance to the championship.
Despite dropping a tightly contested match to Penn State’s third-ranked Frank Molinaro, 3-0, Grajales turned a lot of heads as he looks ready for another deep tournament run.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Grajales said of his runner-up finish. “I knew what I was capable of going into the tournament, but I knew how hard it would be and I knew I’d have to wrestle my best. I just went out there and did what I’ve been practicing all season.”
Three other Michigan wrestlers finished higher than expected. No. 6 seed Sean Boyle finished fifth in the 125-pound weight class, thanks to an opening round upset over the four seed. And No. 7 seed junior Zac Stevens finished fifth in the 133-pound weight class and No. 6 seed, redshirt freshman Dan Yates, used a pin over the fifth seed to place fifth in the 165-pound weight class.
“Those young guys go through some growing pains in making those adjustments, and (Yates) is another one who has gotten better and better,” McFarland said. “He mentally prepares well for each match. (Boyle and Stevens) wrestled really well. It was great to see.”
Redshirt junior Justin Zeerip placed eighth in the 174-pound weight class and redshirt sophomore Ben Apland finished sixth in the heavyweights. Redshirt sophomore Hunter Collins, redshirt freshman Brandon Zeerip and redshirt senior Anthony Biondo didn’t place.
The Big Ten — home to six of the top-16 teams in the country — is undoubtedly the nation’s toughest conference. Penn State narrowly won the title, but it was the perfect training for what a young Michigan can expect in the NCAA Tournament — which is in Philadelphia in two weeks.
“There’s no question about it, I think the intensity level is at the highest and it’s by far the best conference in the country,” McFarland said. “You look at the individuals, the teams, and it’s just great preparation for the NCAAs. The good thing is, we got through it healthy, and now we’ve just got to refocus and get ready for the national tournament.”