ALBANY, N.Y. – Coming into the NCAA Wrestling Championships, Michigan had the highest of expectations. After a disappointing third-place finish at Big Ten Championships, the Wolverines were hoping to rebound with a strong showing at nationals. It wasn’t to be, though, as Michigan finished in a dismal ninth after coming in as the No. 3 team in the nation. Top-ranked Minnesota captured the NCAA title for the second straight year.
“Obviously I’m disappointed. We came in with high expectations, and we didn’t meet them,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said. “We didn’t wrestle the kind of NCAA tournament we wanted.”
Michigan’s downfall came on the second day of the tournament. With five wrestlers in the quarterfinals, it looked as though the Wolverines would be contending for a top-three finish. But everything came apart as Michigan lost nine of the 12 matches wrestled on that day.
The Wolverines didn’t send a single wrestler to the finals or even the consolation finals. The highest finish came from 174-pound senior Otto Olson, who ended in fifth-place. Olson entered the tournament undefeated as the No. 1 seed, but he failed to come through for the national title in his last season at Michigan. The now three-time All-American advanced to the semi-finals but was upset by the No. 4 seed, Princeton’s Greg Parker, 12-8. Parker, who became the first All-American from Princeton since 142-pounder John Orr in 1985, looked up at the scoreboard at the end of the match and looked shocked that he had just upset the top-seeded Olson.
“I was the underdog out there, and the crowd was really behind me,” Parker said. “I just wrestled as hard as I could, and it worked out for me. To beat a guy from a Big Ten school like Michigan really gives our small program some credibility. The competition level in our wrestling room just gets better every day.”
In the consolation bracket, Olson lost to defending national champion Josh Koscheck of Edinboro, who Olson had beaten before. Olson rebounded in the fifth-place match against Rick Springman of Penn. In the final match of his illustrious college wrestling career, Olson pulled off a close 5-4 victory over Springman.
None of the nine Michigan wrestlers who qualified for the NCAA tournament finished at or above his seed except for sixth-seeded 157-pound Ryan Bertin, who finished sixth. The redshirt freshman claimed his All-America status by mechanically wrestling through the tournament, not upsetting any higher seeds or being upset in the process.
“It felt good, but I knew I just had to keep wrestling to go after third place,” Bertin said of his win over Ohio State’s Josh Janson to become an All-American.
Senior Andy Hrovat and redshirt junior Kyle Smith each finished in seventh-place to claim All-America status. For both wrestlers though, the All-America title was no consolation prize for the team’s poor finish.
“Yeah sure, maybe when I’m old and I look back on it, it (being an All-American) will be nice, but not now, “Hrovat said. “Right now, I’m just disappointed in how I finished.”
A.J. Grant and Mike Kulczycki – both All-Americans last year – were unable to make it past the second day of competition. In an ironic twist of fate, Grant wrestled former Michigan wrestler and current North Carolina standout Chris Rodrigues. Rodrigues, the nation’s top recruit in 2000, came to Michigan with hopes of starting for the Wolverines in his first year. ButGrant had different ideas as he beat out Rodrigues for the 125-pound spot. Realizing he wouldn’t be able to compete at Michigan for the next two years, Rodrigues transferred to North Carolina, where he immediately became the team’s star wrestler.
Grant jumped out on Rodrigues early in the match and was winning in the second period, but Rodrigues caught him on his back and pinned him. The loss eliminated Grant from the tournament and prevented the junior from improving on his fourth-place finish at last year’s NCAA Tournament. Rodrigues went on to become an All-American by finishing in eighth place.
“I’m really happy for (Rodrigues). He’s a great wrestler, and he proved that round after round,” McFarland said. “It’s not a sore spot for me. I’m real proud of him.”
Individual NCAA champions were Fresno State’s Stephen Abas, Oklahoma State’s Johnny Thompson, Iowa State’s Aaron Holker, Minnesota’s Jared Lawrence and Luke Becker, Iowa State’s Joe Heskett, West Virginia’s Greg Jones, Lehigh’s Rob Rohn, Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson and Ohio State’s Tommy Rowlands from 125 pounds to heavyweight, respectively.
The best match of the tournament came from Lehigh’s Rohn in the finals, when down 14-5 to Oklahoma’s Josh Lambrecht in the third period, he hit a front headlock roll, a move Rohn calls “the Special” to put Lambrecht to his back. With 17 seconds left in the match, the pin was called and the 14,000 fans in attendance exploded to their feet in applause.