All season long the Michigan wrestling team claimed its lineup was more conducive to tournaments than dual meets.
Tournament time came.
And an eighth-place finish was all the 23rd-ranked Wolverines could muster at the Big Ten Championships this past weekend.
But one Wolverine caught fire in East Lansing.
Third-seeded Steve Luke emerged as Big Ten Champion in the 174-pound weight class, beating top-seeded James Yonushonis (Penn State) 5-2 in the championship match.
Despite missing the majority of the season due to injury and returning just for the team’s final dual meet, the redshirt sophomore didn’t lack confidence going into the tournament.
“It feels good,” Luke said. “I knew I could win.”
Luke capitalized on two takedowns in the first period — one in the beginning and one at the end – to take what proved to be an insurmountable lead.
But despite Luke’s win, Michigan’s overall finish was disappointing.
The Wolverines placed third at Big Tens the past two seasons, finishing behind Minnesota and Illinois each year. Michigan coach Joe McFarland had led just two squads to finishes lower than fourth before, but this is Michigan’s worst Big Ten Championship finish ever. Previously the Wolverines worst finish at Big Tens was seventh, which they had done three times (in 1944-5, 1986-7, 1995-6).
“I think we could’ve done a little better,” Luke said. “If a few guys had won a few more matches, we could’ve been up there at third or fourth.”
While Luke was the only Wolverine to win a Big Ten Championship, five Michigan wrestlers qualified this past weekend for the NCAA Championships. Joining Luke in Auburn Hills for NCAAs will be co-captains Eric Tannenbaum (165 pounds) and Josh Churella (149 pounds), who both fell in the finals of the Big Ten Championships. Tyrel Todd (184 pounds), who finished third, and Nick Roy (197 pounds), who finished sixth, will also be there.
Todd was the only Wolverine besides Luke to leave East Lansing on a victory, earning a 12-3 major decision in the third-place bout following his consolation win earlier in the day against seventh-seeded John Dergo (3-1).
“I feel like the five guys are going to have a real good shot,” Luke said. “I think we’ll do well. . We can all score big points at Nationals.”
Churella’s tough loss (3-2) to top-seeded Dustin Schlatter (Minnesota) came down to riding time, just as it had in their earlier match-up in the dual-meet season. Tannenbaum suffered his first loss of the year (5-2) to second-seeded Mark Perry, who the top-ranked Tannenbaum beat (6-2) in overtime in their previous match.
But despite placing four wrestlers in the top-three, the team was still disappointed with its inability to finish higher than eighth place. Only 11.5 points separated Michigan from third-place Iowa, making the team’s finish even more frustrating. All three of the team’s lightweights, along with heavyweight Casey White, were eliminated after the first day of competition.
Michigan’s weakness – lack of depth – followed the team to the post-season.
“There were a few matches that could’ve gone either way,” Luke said. “We were right in there.”