Michigan wrestling coach Joe McFarland arrived in Cedar Falls, Iowa, this weekend, full of anticipation. His seventh-ranked Wolverines were about to take their toughest test yet.
Michigan entered the 16-team NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals with four wrestlers ranked in the top four of their weight class. Two of them, fifth-year senior captain Eric Tannenbaum and true freshman Kellen Russell, had yet to lose.
Russell suffered his first and second career defeats on the tournament’s first day. And on the final day, Tannenbaum lost his first dual match since the 2005-06 regular-season finale. Michigan’s streak of 11 consecutive dual-meet victories was snapped.
But by the end of the tournament, the Wolverines came back in furious fashion against a highly ranked conference foe to tie their highest-ever finish in the annual gauntlet.
After losing their first meet in seven weeks to No. 2 Iowa Sunday afternoon, Michigan rebounded in the consolation match to erase an early 10-0 Minnesota lead. The Wolverines took six of the last eight matches against the sixth-ranked Golden Gophers, winning 23-16 and earning third place.
Last weekend, McFarland predicted the NWCA Tournament would serve as a good barometer for his team with Big Ten play two weeks away. After the meet, he was pleased with how quickly Michigan shook off the Iowa loss and with the determination his freshman showed in taking control of Minnesota after the Wolverines went down in the opening two matches.
Facing No. 4 Manuel River at 141 pounds, Russell built a nice lead after the opening two periods before Rivera notched two takedowns in the third frame to put the match in jeopardy. Russell rebounded, escaping twice and racking up 2:17 of riding time overall in a 10-7 victory.
“Kellen turned it around for us and got us back in the win column,” McFarland said.
All-American fifth-year senior Josh Churella followed with a pin the next match. After fifth-year senior Jeff Marsh lost narrowly, Tannenbaum started a new winning streak, beating Jeremy Larson 6-3. All-American redshirt juniors Steve Luke and Tyrell Todd won their bouts and both improved to 4-0 on the weekend. Once redshirt freshman Anthony Biondo shut out Mitch Kuhlman 10-0, Michigan had amassed a 10-point lead with one match remaining, clinching their highest finish in the tournament since placing third in 2004.
“I think finishing third in a tournament like this has got to be a good thing for the team going into the Big Ten season,” McFarland said.
McFarland praised the Hawkeyes’ focus coming into Sunday’s semifinal. With a sizeable crowd donning black and gold behind them, Iowa won six of the first seven matches, racing to a 20-6 lead. Todd stopped the bleeding with a 3-2 decision over No. 11 Phil Keddy, but it was too late. The Wolverines fell 23-13.
Nine of the 10 Hawkeyes who competed against Michigan Sunday are ranked in the top 20 of their respective weight classes.
“To be honest, I thought all those guys wrestled well,” McFarland said.
The marquee matchup pitted Tannebaum against second-ranked Mark Perry at 165 lbs. Perry scored midway through the first period on a single-leg takedown near the edge of the mat. It was all the margin Perry needed, allowing him to defeat the previously perfect Tannenbaum, 4-1.
Iowa rode their momentum into the finals, dominating 10th-ranked Nebraska 24-6. Michigan will get their second chance against the Hawkeyes February 17th in Iowa City.