The year 2011 came to an end, coincidentally enough, with 11 place winners for the Michigan wrestling team. The Wolverines eclipsed all other teams at the annual Mat Town Invitational, hosted by Lock Haven University, and came away with a few resolutions as they approach the new year.

Michigan boasted at least one place-winning wrestler in each weight class above 125 pounds, five of which were crowned champions. The combined efforts of each individual ultimately resulted in the eighth-ranked Wolverines taking home the title with 141 points.

Their performance made it seem as if the Wolverines would wrestle through the second half of the season with momentum. They reached a turning point when they took revenge on runner-up Pittsburgh, who beat Michigan in a dual meet early in the season.

What was the major difference between the team’s 19-13 loss against the Panthers and its recent dominance?

Kellen Russell.

Inactive due to a minor injury during the dual meet, a restored Russell meant a rejuvenated team.

“He came through big today, scored a lot of bonus points for us,” said Michigan coach Joe McFarland. “Kellen is a great competitor. He hates to lose. I knew that the first moment he walked into the room.”

The 141-pound fifth-year senior has lived up to those expectations over the years and continues to set higher standards for himself. Russell finished the tournament 4-0 with 3 major decisions, a technical fall and four bonus wins.

Russell remains a crucial asset to the team’s success on the mat, and though he doesn’t brag about it, he stands as a role model for his teammates. With modesty, Russell embraces his last season as a Wolverine.

“It’s really shaped me into the person I am today — the program, the coaches and everybody I’ve wrestled with,” Russell said. “I’ve learned a little bit from everybody, and I keep learning from younger guys.”

Even though he’s ranked No. 2 and standing at 16-1 on the season, Russell knows there is always room for improvement. His New Year’s resolution? “Get more takedowns.”

Fifth-year senior Justin Zeerip is already adequate in that department.

“I have more of a power style,” Zeerip said. “Staying tight, taking my shots, trying to square people out, grind ‘em out.”

Zeerip was confident in his performing style before arriving at Lock Haven, but was reassured after pinning his first two opponents at 3:22 and 2:32 respectively. In his final match, Zeerip faced Pittsburgh fifth-year senior Ethan Headlee.

This wasn’t the first time Zeerip wrestled against Headlee. In the 2010-11 season, Zeerip suffered a close 3-1 loss in sudden victory. They squared off again this past November, where Zeerip rallied for a win that put Michigan ahead 13-10, though his teammates couldn’t hold onto the lead.

At last, they met again. With an escape, single leg takedown and over a minute of riding time, Zeerip took the 174-pound title and left Headlee scoreless.

Satisfied with his victory, Zeerip admitted to a more general New Year’s resolution: “Try to get additional morning workouts in a week.”

Also crowned was senior Zac Stevens, redshirt sophomore Dan Yates and redshirt junior Ben Apland who all finished their championship bouts 2-0 with escapes and rideouts.

Stevens, who wrestles in the 133-pound bracket, pinned Franklin & Marshall freshman Robert Ruiz in the first period of the first round and followed with a major decision in the quarterfinals.

There was a noticeable difference between the Stevens that lost in the home opener against Wisconsin, and the Stevens that was thorough and effective in Lock Haven.

“He was aggressive today,” McFarland said. “It goes back to that same philosophy that we talk to these guys a lot about. It’s about scoring a lot of points and trying to dominate your opponents and Zac did a great job of that today. He stayed on his offense and wasn’t trying to sit on a lead.”

It seemed that McFarland was content with the end of the year and his team’s progress. When asked for his New Year’s resolution, he was thoughtful and hesitant, as if they were already on track for a promising season.

He then realized that improvement is always welcome in his program.

“We’re going to be more consistent with running as a supplement to our training. … I don’t expect the guys are going to be real excited.”

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