KANSAS CITY, Mo. – While Michigan’s Ryan Bertin was on his way to a national championship, the Wolverines’ three seniors were all battling to become All-American’s for the second time. Two of the three achieved just that, and Michigan left the NCAA wrestling championships ecstatic with its seventh-place finish.
Michigan finished with 58 points, while Oklahoma State won its 31st national title convincingly with 143 points, well ahead of two-time defending champion Minnesota. The Cowboys ended nearly a decade of Big Ten dominance in wrestling, as the Big Ten had won the last eight championships before this year.
Michigan’s 197-pounder Kyle Smith, seeded ninth, was an All-American in his first season as a starter and hoped to go two-for-two. To do so, he needed a win over Michigan State senior and No. 7 seed Nik Fekete, a 2001 All-American.
After a scoreless first period, Fekete took a lead with a takedown, but Smith stormed back with an escape and a double-leg takedown of his own for a 4-2 lead after two periods. After Fekete got a quick escape to open the third, he got another takedown and Smith suddenly found himself behind again, this time 5-4. With less than a minute left, Smith got an escape to tie the score, and then with less than 15 seconds left, clinched the match with a takedown.
“He got in on me early and got a lead, and I just tried to stay in the match,” the fifth-year senior said of his 7-6 win. “I just found a way to pull it off in the end.”
“Kyle really dug down deep and got that takedown when he needed it.” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said. “All that extra conditioning work he’s done all season really paid off right there.”
The match against Fekete followed a tough loss to Lehigh’s top seed, Jon Trenge. Smith was down 3-1 due to a pair of questionable technical violations, one for locking hands, and the other for giving Trenge a shove after he threw Smith into the scorer’s table after the whistle. With less than 10 seconds left, Smith had Trenge in a cradle and was going for near-fall points. But Smith got a little too aggressive, and Trenge caught Smith on his back for the fall.
After defeating Fekete, Smith gave up a late takedown to lose to Nebraska’s No. 3 Justin Ruiz, and pinned Fresno State’s Marcio Botelho Saturday to finish seventh.
125-pounder A.J. Grant had cruised to the semifinals, where he faced the always tough No. 1 seed Chris Fleeger of Purdue. Grant was 0-5 against Fleeger and finished second to him at the Big Ten Championships just two weeks ago.
After a scoreless first period, Grant kept going after Fleeger but come up empty. With 20 seconds left in the period, Fleeger was able to take Grant down for a 2-0 lead. Fleeger added an escape in the third to win 3-0.
“That was a tough loss because it was such a close match,” McFarland said. “If A.J. had gotten that takedown in the second period, it could have been a completely different finish. But I’m real proud of him. He was our most consistent wrestler all season, and I’m happy he’s an All-American again.”
Grant pulled out a tough 2-0 win with a second-period reversal over No. 10 seed Tony Black from Wisconsin. The fourth seed finished the tournament fourth when No. 9 Jason Powel frpm Nebraska pinned him.
While Smith and Grant were able to meet their expectations this weekend, 165-pounder Mike Kulczycki struggled with injuries and lost two close matches on the first day.
In the opening round, he lost to No. 9 Matt King from Edinboro 2-0. Down by a point in the third period, the 2001 All-American couldn’t escape, giving King another point for riding time and the win.
Unfortunately for Kulczycki, things didn’t get any easier in the consolation bracket. His next match was against No. 8 Noel Thompson of Hofstra, who was upset in the first round. In a takedown-filled affair, Kulczycki fell 16-13.
“The kid has gutted it out all year,” McFarland said about the fifth-year senior. “He’s wrestling on a torn ACL in his right knee and a high ankle sprain in his left. He’s been a leader in my room, and a leader in my program since he walked in. Mike’s got to keep his head up. I feel bad that he wasn’t able to accomplish what he wanted to this year, but I’m real proud of him.”
Pat Owen, wrestling up at least one weight class at 174 pounds, went 2-2 this weekend. After a 11-0 loss to No. 11 Mark Fee of Appalachian State, Owen won a pair of matches in the consolation bracket, including pinning VMI’s Matt Erwin. Owen’s run ended with a 5-1 loss to Fresno State’s Eddy Gifford.
Three Wolverines made their first appearance, and all three had some success this weekend.
After losing in the first round, Michigan heavyweight Greg Wagner won a pair of matches and found himself facing No. 5 Boe Rushton from Boise Statewith the winner clinching All-American. Rushton got an early takedown, and in a scramble caught him on his back for the pin.
Michigan’s 149-pounder, Ryan Churella, split four matches this weekend. The second win was an impressive 6-4 decision over No. 8 Travis Shufelt of Nebraska. Churella took an early lead with a takedown and a two-point near fall before Shufelt made a run but came up short. Churella’s weekend ended with an 8-2 loss to No. 11 Billy Smith of West Virginia.
Clark Forward went 1-2 this weekend, with the win coming over Wisconsin’s Tyler Laudon.
“I thought it was a gutsy performance by our guys,” McFarland said. “We stayed positive all tournament and all season. I was proud of the way everyone wrestled. We wrestled hard this weekend; we were sharp, aggressive and demonstrated excellent conditioning. It was a great tournament for Michigan wrestling.”