MADISON – The Big Ten Conference knows wrestling. Of the 11 schools in the Big Ten, six are ranked among the top 10 and nine are among the top 25. So when they all meet up for the Big Ten Championships, just about anything can happen.
This weekend, the Michigan wrestling team finished sixth with 90.5 points. But with eight wrestlers qualifying for nationals and all but one wrestler finishing at or better than their seeding, the Wolverines leave pleased with their performance and excited to make noise at the NCAA Championships. Minnesota held off Iowa for the title.
The lone Wolverine to reach the finals, A.J. Grant, found himself up against Purdue’s Chris Fleeger, who he has lost to in all four of their meetings. Fleeger went to work immediately, registering a takedown in the first minute. From there he didn’t let up, and within a minute Fleeger put him on his back for the pin.
“That match obviously didn’t go the way A.J. wanted,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said. “You’ve got to give Fleeger some credit – he’s real tough. The good thing is that you can erase this whole tournament and NCAA’s are a whole new ballgame.” Though only Grant reached the finals, three Wolverines did make it to the third-place match. And even though none of the three were ranked higher than fourth, all three managed to pull out the win.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Churella was the first of the three to win, escaping with a 1-0 victory over Michigan State’s Karl Nadolsky at 149 pounds.
Ryan Bertin finished his weekend strong with a 6-2 decision over Penn State’s Nate Wachter. An All-American who finished second at last year’s Big Tens, Bertin spent much of the season battling injuries and only recently became fully healthy.
Fifth-year senior Kyle Smith displayed some of his best wrestling of the season this weekend. The All-American finished third with a 5-2 decision over Penn State’s Ryan Cummins. Smith’s most impressive match came Saturday, when he defeated Iowa’s Ryan Fulsaas.
“I feel really good about nationals. I feel a lot better right now about how I’m wrestling. I’m looking forward to going to Kansas City,” Smith said.
Heavyweight Greg Wagner lost a close match to Wisconsin’s Justin Staebler 2-1 in two overtimes. But fifth-year senior Mike Kulczycki, who was seeing his first action since Feb. 1, forfeited his match against Purdue’s Oscar Santiago and finished in sixth place. With an NCAA bid secured, McFarland didn’t want to take a chance.
With the top seven wrestlers earning bids to the NCAA Championships in two weeks, the Wolverines had a pair of crucial matches in the early session yesterday, and they both went Michigan’s way.
At 141 pounds, Clark Forward looked to be in trouble, but Forward refused to come up short. Forward caught his opponent out of position and put him on his back for the win.
Pat Owen, wrestling at 174 pounds for the first time this season, also earned his NCAA bid yesterday.