Last year, the Michigan wrestling team entered the Big Ten Championships ranked second in the country and filled with confidence.
But the Wolverines’ efforts throughout the season had worn them down, as they finished a disappointing third at Big Tens and ninth at Nationals.
This season, Michigan coach Joe McFarland made sure fatigue wouldn’t be a factor. McFarland wanted the team to be fresh and peaking for Big Tens, and the wrestlers feel he has done just that.
“I think we did everything right this year,” redshirt sophomore Ryan Bertin said. “Last year we peaked at the wrong time. But this year our legs are fresh, and we’re ready to go out and perform great this weekend.”
Only Iowa and Minnesota are ranked ahead of No. 6 Michigan. But right below Michigan are Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan State, so the Wolverines need results from their entire lineup.
A.J. Grant, 28-6 this season, is likely Michigan’s best chance at a Big Ten champion. At 125 pounds, Grant is seeded second behind Purdue’s Chris Fleeger. Fleeger narrowly beat Grant 2-0 in a dual meet Feb. 22.
At 133 pounds, Shaun Newton will replace Foley Dowd, who was seeded third this weekend but is out for the season with a lingering neck injury.
“That’s a tough loss for us,” McFarland said. “He has been one of the top guys in the country at that weight class and one of our most consistent wrestlers all season.
“I feel bad for Foley; he’s really disappointed. He has his sights set on winning a national championship and being an All-American.”
The 157-pound Ryan Bertin is just now getting past injuries to his knee and ankle, and is ready to break out and wrestle up to his potential.
“This is the best I’ve felt all year,” Bertin said. “My foot is back to normal. I don’t need to tape it up anymore. It’s been bothering me all year, but now I’m over it.”
Fifth-year senior Mike Kulczycki will return to the lineup at 165 pounds this weekend after winning a wrestle-off against Pat Owen. Kulczycki has battled injuries all season, but a strong finish will erase the bad memories.
“It’s been a real tough year,” Kulczycki said. “Being injured is never fun. But I’m ready as I’ll ever be, so I’m just going to block it out and wrestle the best I can.
“Last year I had a great season, but it didn’t finish well, and that’s all that matters. This year my season didn’t go well, but I still have a chance to salvage the year.”
Owen has been on a tear lately, so McFarland decided to bump him up to 174 pounds. Owen has gone 4-1 and pinned three highly-ranked opponents in the last three weeks and has earned so much respect that he is seeded eighth this weekend, even though he hasn’t wrestled at 174 pounds this season.
“I think the confidence I’ve gained over the last three weeks beating some top-ranked guys will make that move easier,” Owen said. “When moving up in weight, confidence is a big factor.
“My opponents will be bigger and stronger than I’m used to, but I’m going to be a lot quicker. My style of wrestling relies on quickness and agility, so it may be even more of an advantage against 174-pounders.”
Heavyweight Greg Wagner is yet another Wolverine returning from an injury. Wagner, seeded fifth this weekend, injured his ankle Feb. 9 against Michigan State.
Fifth-year senior Kyle Smith has been on a roll of late, and hopes to carry the momentum into the weekend. Smith struggled mightily early in the season, but now has returned to his All-American form.
“If you want to win, you always have to stay positive,” Smith said. “If you get down in a slump you may never get out of it. Even when I was struggling I never doubted myself.
“I hope to win (a Big Ten Championship) this weekend. Anything less will be disappointing. I think the end of the year is what’s most important. At Big Tens, you have to qualify for Nationals, and that is what everyone remembers.”