Despite having nine wrestlers qualify for the NCAA championships this weekend, No. 3 Michigan will march into Albany, N.Y. with a sizeable chip on its shoulder.
At the Big Ten Championships, then-No. 2 Michigan was clearly outplayed in the standings by perennial powerhouses Minnesota and Iowa. The Wolverines’ third-place finish did not match coach Joe McFarland’s lofty expectations.
At Big Tens, “we really didn’t get after guys,” McFarland said. “Some guys came out pretty cautious.”
The Wolverines’ tentativeness in the nation’s premier conference championship resulted in several damaging upsets. Accomplished wrestlers like No. 7 Foley Dowd (133 pounds), No. 8 A.J. Grant (125 pounds) and No. 3 Andy Hrovat (184 pounds) were beaten by lower-seeded opponents in tight matches.
With four seniors competing in their final collegiate meet and six wrestlers seeded in the top 10, Michigan certainly has the talent and leadership to rebound at nationals. The Wolverines’ senior captains, Otto Olson and Hrovat, have led all season with their relentless work ethic and fiery competitiveness in meets. Olson has torn through his competition with a 37-0 record, piling up major decisions and falls in the process. Although his matches at Big Tens were close, the confident senior never entertained thoughts of defeat.
“I never really felt threatened,” Olson said.
Hrovat, on the other hand, has added motivation for a national title after losing to Minnesota rival Damion Hahn at Big Tens. Until that defeat, Hrovat was ranked No. 1 at 184 pounds. With his superior conditioning and indomitable strength, the senior has a legitimate chance to win his first national title.
With Olson and Hrovat graduating, freshman Ryan Bertin (157 pounds) appears to be Michigan’s next torch-bearer. Having amassed a 33-5 record and a No. 6 seed in Albany, Bertin clawed to a runner-up finish at Big Tens in his first year as a starter. More importantly, he showed the ability to rise to the challenge.
Heavyweight Matt Brink has been overlooked this year. Although he is unseeded at the NCAAs, Brink has been competitive against top-ranked foes like Minnesota’s Garrett Lowney. Brink lost to Lowney in overtime, 3-1, to finish fourth at Big Tens. Going into his final collegiate meet at nationals, Brink has steadily recovered from a midseason knee injury.
“Every week I have tried to step it up a little bit,” Brink said.
While No. 1 Minnesota appears to be a heavy favorite, several other squads will make noise in Albany. Traditional power Iowa came back from its sub-par dual meet season to finish second at Big Tens. Now ranked No. 2, the Hawkeyes have been excellent competitors in clutch situations.
When the dust settles, though, the team championship will likely go to Minnesota. With a combination of wall-to-wall depth and superstar talent, the Gophers should dominate NCAAs. If the Wolverines are to make a run, they need wrestlers other than Olson, Hrovat and Bertin to make an impact.