Last season, the then-No. 5 Michigan wrestling team took on a perennial championship contender in No. 3 Iowa in a landmark meet at Cliff Keen Arena. With wrestling fans in the sold-out gym creating a raucous atmosphere, the underdog Wolverines ambushed the Hawkeyes, 18-16.
This year, the tables are turned. No. 3 Michigan (4-1 Big Ten, 13-3 overall) is the hunted. The Wolverines will travel to Iowa City to take on No. 2 Iowa (4-1, 14-3) in a critical Big Ten dual meet today.
“As a team, it doesn”t get any tougher than wrestling Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena,” Michigan team captain Andy Hrovat said.
Both teams feature lineups with nationally ranked wrestlers. The Hawkeyes have six wrestlers ranked in the top 10 of their respective weight classes, including No. 1heavyweight Steve Mocco and No.1 149-pounder Mike Zadick.
Michigan coach Joe McFarland boasts seven top 10 wrestlers in his lineup, including undefeated No. 1 Otto Olson in the 174 weight class and No. 2 Hrovat at 184 pounds.
Last month, the Wolverines defeated the Hawkeyes 23-12 at the National Duals in Columbus. Michigan blew the meet open with five consecutive match wins.
Since then, it can be argued that Michigan has improved. After being whipped 22-10 by No. 1 Minnesota to start their Big Ten season, the Wolverines have won four in a row.
Last weekend”s win over No. 4 Ohio State was an excellent display of Michigan”s ability to win on the road. By striking early for a 7-0 lead, the Wolverines were able to take the spirit out of the home crowd and dominate.
In a hostile atmosphere like Carver-Hawkeye Arena, it will be even more imperative to get off to a good start. Well-versed in the intricacies of wrestling, Iowa”s fans know how to squeeze favorable referee decisions on borderline calls.
“The crowd plays a large part in what the referee does,” Olson said. The fans “understand the rules of wrestling, and will let the (referee) know if there is a borderline call.”
Since National Duals, Olson and Hrovat have gone undefeated with three major decisions, two technical falls and one pin combined. But Michigan cannot rely on those two alone. Against Minnesota, the Wolverines fell short despite strong performances from the two seniors because the team”s lighter weights were swept.
Because the meet could start at any weight class, the first few wrestlers must be prepared to seize the momentum of the match.
If one aspect of the team has really improved since National Duals, it has been the performance of 149-pounder Mike Kulczycki and Foley Dowd at 133 pounds.
“Foley Dowd and Mike Kulczycki have improved a lot and are more mentally prepared to wrestle against their opponents,” Hrovat said.
A candidate for an upset in this meet could be Michigan heavyweight Matt Brink. Injured for most of the year after being ranked in the top 10, Brink is beginning to find his form. With an opportunity to wrestle the nation”s best in Iowa”s Mocco, Brink can turn his season around. Making things even more dangerous for the favored Mocco is the fact that Brink has been able to keep every match close, even when he was hurt and overmatched.
The best matchup of the meet will be Hrovat versus No. 5 Jessman Smith. With Hrovat having beaten Smith, 6-2, earlier this season, it appears that the Michigan captain has an advantage. Also, Smith plays into Hrovat”s hands with his conventional method of attack.
Smith, “does not have a crazy style where he has the potential to catch me in an unorthodox move,” said Hrovat. “I have been studying film on him, and I know everything he will be doing. I think this favors me because I am so familiar with his style.”
After tonight”s draining meet, the Wolverines must gear up for Wisconsin in Madison on Sunday. Although the Wolverines have directed most of their attention to Iowa this week, they have avoided letdowns after big meets thus far.
“We make a habit out of competing hard no matter who we wrestle,” said Olson. “Wisconsin should be no exception.”