When Michigan wrestling coach Joe McFarland closes his eyes at night and counts sheep, it must be hard for him to get past the number five.
This past weekend, the No. 5 Wolverines took fifth place at the NWCA National Duals in Iowa, making this season the fifth time they have placed fifth at the meet.
And the magic number doesn’t stop there.
Four Wolverines boasted perfect 5-0 records over the weekend. Two of them were fifth-year senior captains Ryan Churella and Greg Wagner, the only undefeated wrestlers on the squad.
But the one five that got away from Michigan was the one they wanted most – to win all five of their dual meets. With a tough loss to No. 14 Nebraska, Michigan’s hopes of claiming first place evaporated. After the 24-16 defeat in the quarterfinals, the best place Michigan could get was that familiar number five.
“It was sort of an emotional loss for us after we loss to Nebraska,” McFarland said. “That was a match that I thought we were on track to win, but every now and then, some freaky things happen. We got ourselves in some tough positions, and Nebraska capitalized on them.”
Rebounding after the defeat was a true test for Michigan, who had to win its remaining matches against Cornell, Arizona State and Iowa to earn the No. 5 spot.
“I think so far this season, that’s probably the highest level of wrestling we’ve seen all year,” McFarland said. “All the top teams in the country were there.”
The bracket-style tournament included 16 of the best teams in the country, and Minnesota came out on top.
Though it was a team tournament, individuals got their chance to shine throughout the weekend. In his final match, Michigan junior Nick Roy had a big win at the 174-pound level over Iowa’s Ben Stedman. Roy started the bout with a strong lead, but he squandered the margin in the second period after Stedman eked out an escape and a takedown. Before the period was over, Roy came back, bringing Stedman down to the mat for a pin.
“I think our team showed a lot of heart coming back,” Roy said. “I know a lot of guys were disappointed because we wanted to win it. But not everything goes as planned, and really, it’s the end of the year that counts. I’d take a national championship over a national dual championship any day.”
Wagner dominated the heavyweight category the entire weekend, notching four shutout victories and one forfeit. Overall, he outscored his opponents 36-0. The 4-0 decision in his final bout sealed the 19-15 victory over the Hawkeyes – and the fifth-place standing for his team.
McFarland noted that individuals like redshirt freshmen Tyrel Todd and Steve Luke also had praiseworthy performances, even if they didn’t result in a “W” on the score sheet.
“My young guys, Tyrel Todd and Steve Luke, had good matches,” McFarland said. “They were in every one of those matches. They proved to themselves that if they continue to work, it’s going to start happening for them.”
With five dual meets crammed into two days and a long bus ride to and from Iowa, the weekend was taxing for the Wolverines. Four of the matches took place Saturday, making for a long day at the gym.
“We were in the gym for 15 hours Saturday,” Wagner said. “It gets hard to sit around all day. We couldn’t relax, and we had to keep our focus. It really shows how tough a team is mentally.”
After the grueling weekend, the Wolverines will enjoy a short break before Big Ten competition kicks off against Northwestern. Though he is pleased with where his team is at right now, McFarland has plans to improve the team’s intensity level, mat strategy and conditioning. With that progress, fifth place could become a distant memory.