He just capped off his third consecutive Big Ten title.
He hadn’t lost in 34 matches.
Yet none of that seemed to matter for redshirt junior Kellen Russell.
“It’s a good warm-up getting ready for Nationals,” Russell said after winning his third conference crown two weeks ago. “I’m just kind of concentrating on winning my first national title, and not the three titles.
“I’m glad I was able to win three. I know there a lot of really good wrestlers that haven’t been able to do that, but I’m just trying to concentrate on winning my first national title rather than thinking about my three Big Ten titles right now, because my real, long-term goal is to win at Nationals.”
And when you look at Russell’s career, you can’t blame him. The High Bridge, New Jersey native is one of eight wrestlers representing 11th-ranked Michigan (5-3 Big Ten, 11-5 overall) in this week’s NCAA Tournament, which begins Thursday in Philadelphia.
Russell, No. 1 in the 141-pound weight class, has been in this spot before. In 2009 — his sophomore season — Russell was also the top-ranked grappler entering the NCAA Tournament. With the expectations of winning a national title on his shoulders, Russell crumbled — failing to even reach the quarterfinals.
He lost again in the consolation bracket, before capturing seventh-place. That was 2009 — the last time Russell lost.
“Throughout the course of the season, he’s done a good job of staying focused week-to-week,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said of his star’s perfect season. “But there’s no question in the back of his mind, this is what he wants. This is the tournament he’s trained for. This is the tournament he’s been looking to get back to since his sophomore year.”
But Russell isn’t the only Wolverine with high expectations.
“We’ve been really intense and I think the team looks really good,” junior Zac Stevens said. “We’re rested and ready to go for the big show.
“We sat down (with the coaches at the beginning of the season) and set what our goals for the season are. I think everyone in our lineup is capable of, and wants to be, an All-American. It’s a pretty clear thing across the board.”
All-American honors are bestowed upon those who finish in the top eight at Nationals.
Stevens joins Russell, redshirt junior Justin Zeerip and fifth-year senior Anthony Biondo as the lone Wolverines with NCAA Tournament experience.
After struggling through a season laced with injury, including a diagnosis of colitis, Biondo knows that with success in March, all can be forgotten.
After a 0-2 Big Ten tournament put Biondo on the bubble, the 15th-ranked veteran has a chance to make a big splash in his last go-around.
“I think he’s excited to get another opportunity,” McFarland said of his captain. “He’s got experience here. I think he’s in a good spot — I like his draw. It’s just a matter of putting things together.”
Four Wolverines — redshirt sophomore Ben Apland, sophomore Sean Boyle and redshirt freshmen Dan Yates and Eric Grajales — will make their Nationals debuts this week.
“Sometimes these guys come in with big eyes because it’s in a big venue, it’s sold out and they’re talking about a record attendance here,” McFarland said. “But I’ve got to keep these guys focused on their wrestling and keeping the distractions out of their mind.
“And we’ve talked about, ‘It’s just another wrestling match. You’ve done this hundreds and hundreds of times throughout the course of your life. It’s just another wrestling match.’ ”
One thing the Wolverines have going for them is their experience going through the weekly grind of the nation’s toughest conference — the Big Ten.
Five of the country’s top-15 teams come from the Big Ten — including three of the top four.
“Wrestling in the Big Ten is kind of like wrestling in the national tournament all year long,” Stevens said. “I think everybody will be ready for the intensity and the level of competition because you’re not going to find better competition than in the Big Ten.”
But in the end, it all comes down to representing their school and the block ‘M’ on their chest.
“It means everything,” Stevens said of representing the Wolverines. “That’s what we’re here for, that’s why we chose to come to Michigan. We work all season for it. This is just the culmination of our season.”