PHILADELPHIA — He did it.
All year long, redshirt junior Kellen Russell has taken one match at a time — notching a perfect regular season record — but it was clear his sights were set higher: winning a national championship.
And on Saturday night at the Wells-Fargo Center, Russell won his first career title — after his 39th consecutive victory — defeating Cal Poly’s Boris Novachkov, 3-2, in the 141-pound title.
The national title was Michigan’s first in any sport during the 2010-11 school year.
Led by Russell, the 11th-ranked Wolverines (5-3 Big Ten, 11-5 overall) placed 15th in front of a record attendance of 104,260 across the three-day tournament in the Wells Fargo Center.
With no score midway through the second period of the title bout, Russell encountered a scary moment when he heard his ankle pop as it was rolled under his body.
“He was very hobbled — he could hardly put any weight on it, but he was trying to get through the match and he made some adjustments out there,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said. “He knew he couldn’t penetrate, he couldn’t drive off that ankle, so he controlled the tide and waited for that kid to take a shot and he looked for an opportunity.”
Russell would find that opportunity, scoring on an escape to go ahead 1-0. He took that lead into the third period, but Novachkov responded with an escape of his own.
With just 32 seconds remaining in the match, Russell did what he does best: score a takedown off a scramble. When Novachkov lunged at Russell’s weakened ankle, Russell was able to turn him and score a takedown to go ahead, 3-1. Novachkov responded with an escape moments later, but it was too little, too late.
“It feels amazing,” Russell said after the win. “It’s a great honor to even compete for the University of Michigan. All the people in my life that have helped me throughout school, wrestling and everything else, it really pushed me to be a better student and a better athlete and that led me to Michigan.
“And just to be able to wrestle for them is great. And to win a national title, I feel like I’m able to give back a little to them and show the wrestling community how great of a university the University of Michigan is.”
Russell’s success in Philadelphia was a far cry from his disappointment in 2009, where he was also the top seed, but was upset in the second round and managed only a seventh-place finish.
“I felt really comfortable here all weekend,” Russell said. “I didn’t feel nervous, just felt excited the whole time. So that was a huge difference between me two years ago and me now, just kind of growing up and feeling more confident in my wrestling.”
Redshirt freshman Eric Grajales was the only other Wolverine to win two matches in the championship bracket.
Grajales, trailing in his first match by six points entering the final period, beat West Virginia’s Brandon Rader in a shocking pin with just over a minute to go.
The chaos continued into Grajales’ next match, where he faced the top-seeded, former national champion Darrion Caldwell of North Carolina State. In the closing seconds of a scoreless first period, Caldwell dislocated his shoulder, propelling Grajales into the next round.
“Nobody wants to win like that, and nobody likes to see anybody else get hurt like that in this sport,” Grajales said after the match. “I feel bad for him, I feel for him.”
Grajales wasn’t able to sustain the momentum, losing his next two matches to fall a win short of All-American status.
Sophomore Sean Boyle also fell a win short of becoming an All-American. Boyle won three of his first four matches, but a takedown by Oklahoma’s No. 8 seed Jarrod Patterson with 30 seconds left ended Boyle’s upset bid.
Redshirt senior Anthony Biondo ended his storied Michigan career with a 2-2 weekend, as did junior Zac Stevens. Redshirt sophomore Ben Apland went 1-2, while redshirt junior Justin Zeerip and redshirt freshman Dan Yates were both winless.
The Big Ten was well represented, with six teams finishing in the top 15, highlighted by Penn State, which won its first national title. The Nittany Lions’ championship is the conference’s fifth straight.