After four months, 27 matches and more than a few bruises, three members of the No. 18 Michigan wrestling team found themselves in a familiar position at the Big Ten Championships Sunday — with their hands raised.
Michigan (5-2-1,10-8-1) used its three individual conference championships to vault itself to a third-place finish in State College, behind undefeated Iowa and two-loss Illinois in the team standings.
With limited expectations at the beginning of the year because of seven underclassmen, the team exceeded preseason predictions and matched its finish of a year ago.
“We have a tough team,” said fifth year senior Steve Luke, who won the 174-pound conference title. “But people didn’t think we’d come in the top five here.
“We had three Big Ten champs, which is more than any other Big Ten team. Even the guys who lost were fighting hard and going after the people.”
Sophomore Kellen Russell started the individual championship run with a 6-4 overtime win over Wisconsin’s Zach Tanelli at 141 pounds. By beating Tanelli, Russell defended his championship title by beating the top-ranked wrestler in his weight class.
After a late escape by Tanelli sent the match into overtime, Tanelli got hold of Russell’s legs and appeared to be in a position for a takedown in the extra period. But Russell escaped and scrambled around to score the takedown and the win.
“Once he got in, I put myself in kind of a crackdown,” Russell said. “He was a lot shorter than me, so I knew if I could get him extended, I could elevate his hips and roll him through and that is what I ended up doing.”
But Russell almost didn’t make it to the finals. It took him two overtimes to beat third-ranked Alex Tsirtsis from Iowa.
Luke also defended his title by beating Penn State freshman Quenton Wright. The final score read 12-5, but Luke willingly gave up many of those points only to score more takedowns.
“That’s the second time I wrestled the Penn State kid,” Luke said. “So I knew his style and knew what he liked. He liked the under-hook to the single, and I just made sure to stay low and keep good position.”
Luke has spent the entire season at No. 1 in the 174-pound weight class. He extended his undefeated streak to 27 matches Sunday.
“I was real proud of the way he wrestled,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said of Luke. “I can honestly say that is probably one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. To win his third Big Ten title the way he did it, it was nonstop attack, it was really fun to watch and it was fun to be in the corner.”
Despite all of his successes, Luke still has something to prove at the NCAA tournament. He lost by just two points in last year’s championship final.
Luke’s co-captain counterpart, fifth-year senior Tyrel Todd, took home the 197-pound Big Ten Championship in his first season at the weight class.
After tearing his ACL in the beginning of the year, he put off surgery until after this season to put himself in the best position for success. He didn’t disappoint.
“It’s really been a blessing that I’m able to compete and that my knee’s been strong enough to really to be able to wrestle my best, Todd said. “I feel like I’m really on top of my game right now.”
Todd won 5-4, in his Big Ten swan song against Wiscon’s Dallas Herbst. He controlled the pace of the match throughout until he gave up a last-second takedown, making the final score appear a lot closer than the match indicated.
“I didn’t feel threatened by his offense at any point in the match,” Todd said. “Being able to ride him and control the tempo on my feet was really key.”
The three champions were not the only ones scoring points for the Wolverines. Michigan has at least six wrestlers who have qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and the young team may pick up more when wildcard selections are announced Wednesday.
“We hope we can get at least one more, if not two more guys,” McFarland said. “How realistic is that? I don’t know.”
But the celebrations won’t last long with the NCAA Tournament just two weeks away.
“Our main focus is going to be to put this behind us,” McFarland said. “We’re going to celebrate, and then tomorrow we’ll start focusing on the NCAAs.”