Four Gophers advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2017 NCAA Championships with 2-0 performances on Thursday, the event’s opening day. Three of their teammates will join them on the mats on Friday, with that group continuing to work their way through wrestlebacks. The team’s collective 12-7 record, with six bonus-point wins, has Minnesota sitting in seventh one-third of the way through the national tournament.
“Obviously this is a tough tournament. We knew every match would make a difference and so far that’s been the case,” said Head Coach Brandon Eggum. “I thought our guys wrestled with a lot of fight, a lot of energy and a lot passion. That’s what we ask of them, so that was great to see. Now it becomes about the second day, about guys waking up ready to wrestle tough and score points.”
Among Minnesota’s quarterfinalists, only Brett Pfarr, the second seed at 197 pounds, made it through Thursday without at least one nail-biting victory. Pfarr first defeated Matt Correnti (Rutgers), 11-3, before knocking off Brad Johnson (Oklahoma), 6-1. Pfarr did not surrender a takedown to either of his opponents.
Returning NCAA qualifier Tommy Thorn knew his path to the podium would be difficult when he was awarded the No. 14 seed at 141 pounds. Thorn opened his tournament with a relatively comfortable 10-5 victory before locking up with third-seeded Joey McKenna (Stanford) in the second round. Leading 4-3 but giving up significant riding time to McKenna heading to the third, Thorn essentially needed a rideout to win. He got that rideout, but a stall call against Thorn with just four seconds left in the match for holding on to McKenna’s legs tied it up and forced overtime. Late in the extra session, Thorn hit a single for what would have been the match-winning takedown, but the sequence put McKenna to his back and Thorn earned the fall with just one second left in the period, scoring key bonus points for the Gophers.
“Tommy’s win was huge. Some tough calls against him, but he didn't let those phase him. I was impressed with how he kept his composure, took a really nice shot, battled through it and got a pin over the third-ranked guy in the country. That's a big win for him and for us. You need big upsets like that if you’re going to do well in this tournament,” said Eggum.
Ethan Lizak encountered moments of adversity in both of his 125-pound matches on Thursday but, in both cases, rebounded to win and advance. In his opening bout against Christian Moody (Oklahoma), Moody fought back from an early deficit to close to within two points late, but Lizak was able to hold off the late charge for the win. In his next match, Lizak wiped away a six-point move from Josh Terao (American) by out-scrambling the renowned scrambler and by showing his strength in the top position, adding takedowns and near-fall points on his way to a 15-6 major decision.
After handling Austin Myers (Missouri), 6-0, in the opening round, heavyweight Michael Kroells found himself in a battle with Denzel Dejournette (Appalachian State). Neither was able to earn a takedown during regulation, both scoring their lone point off escapes. The match continued through sudden victory overtime, a set of tiebreakers and another sudden victory overtime before it was decided on the bout’s first takedown – nearly 11 minutes into the marathon match. Kroells scored the points off a go-behind, something he had attempted and narrowly missed on scoring several times during the contest, to seal the 5-3 win.
“Ending with [Pfarr and Kroells] getting two wins at the end of the championship round is good momentum for us. I’m really proud of those guys. They continue to do all the things we expect from them,” said Eggum.
By advancing to the quarterfinals, these four are now one win away from clinching All-America status. Those quarterfinal contest will be wrestled during Session III on Friday morning.
McKee began his first career NCAA tournament by only wrestling 115 seconds against Rico Montoya (Northern Colorado). Midway through the first period of their match, McKee fought off a fireman’s carry attempt and scored a takedown off a re-shot. He quickly sunk in an arm bar, which morphed into a double arm bar, and then a pin at 1:55. In the next round, McKee challenged third-seed Kaid Brock (Oklahoma State), falling 3-1 in a closely contested match that ended with McKee holding Brock’s leg and looking for the takedown as Brock did the splits on the edge of the mat.
Both of Wanzek’s matches could easily be defined as hard-fought, beginning with his 3-0 win over Quentin Perez (Campbell), a match Wanzek appeared to control but one he did not lock up until a third-period takedown. In the next round, Wanzek had top seed and two-time defending national champion Isaiah Martinez (Illinois). Against a foe that has overwhelmed many of his opponents, Wanzek brought energy and intensity and gave Martinez all he wanted in an 8-5 decision.
The seventh Gopher wrestling into Friday, 157-pounder Jake Short, recovered from a last-second loss to B.J. Calgon (Rider) in the opening round to control the majority of his first wrestleback match against Jake Faust (Duke) and earn a 13-4 major decision.
“The most important thing for the guys in wrestlebacks is to focus on what they can do for the team the rest of the way,” said Eggum. “That's the thing that's going to be the driving force for them. They have to be ready to go tomorrow.”
In addition to McKee, two other Gophers made their NCAA tournament debuts on Thursday. Bobby Steveson began with a 184-pound pigtail match, a contest in which he cruised to a 13-3 major decision. Steveson went on to fall to Drew Foster (Northern Iowa) and Joseph Heyob (Penn) later in the day. Chris Pfarr drew top-seeded Zahid Valencia in the opening round, a tough draw that led to a first-round loss. In wrestlebacks, Pfarr fell to Connor Bass (Duke), 4-0. Both Pfarr and Steveson are now eliminated from the tournament.
The second day of the NCAA Championships is set to start on the floor of St. Louis’ Scotttrade Center at 10 a.m. Central on Friday morning. That session, Session III, will feature championship quarterfinals and the second and third round of wrestlebacks. Friday’s evening session will include championship semifinals, Round of 12 matches and consolation round-of-four matches. That session will begin at 7 p.m. Central.
Eggum added, “We are the hardest training team in the country and we do those things so we're prepared and ready for the second day of the tournament. Tomorrow, our guys need to let the person they're competing against feel that we’ve got a lot of fight and energy. We have to be the team that's wrestling with more energy than any other team tomorrow if we want to continue to do the things we have to do.”
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125 - Ethan Lizak
Champ Rnd 1: Ethan Lizak dec No. 20 Christian Moody (Oklahoma), 10-8
Champ Rnd 2: Ethan Lizak maj dec No. 12 Josh Terao (American), 15-6
133 - Mitch McKee
Champ Rnd 1: Mitch McKee fall (1:55) Rico Montoya (Northern Colorado)
Champ Rnd 2: No. 3 Kaid Brock (Oklahoma State) dec Mitch McKee, 3-1
141 - Tommy Thorn
Champ Rnd 1: Tommy Thorn dec Timmy Box (Northern Colorado), 10-5
Champ Rnd 2: Tommy Thorn fall (7:59) No. 3 Joey McKenna (Stanford)
157 - Jake Short
Champ Rnd 1: No. 12 B.J. Clagon (Rider) dec Jake Short, 4-2
Cons Rnd 1: Jake Short maj dec Jake Faust (Duke), 13-4
165 - Nick Wanzek
Champ Rnd 1: Nick Wanzek dec Quentin Perez (Campbell), 3-0
Champ Rnd 2: No. 1 Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) dec Nick Wanzek, 8-5
174 - Chris Pfarr
Champ Rnd 1: No. 1 Zahid Valencia (Arizona State) maj dec Chris Pfarr, 19-5
Cons Rnd 1: Connor Bass (Duke) dec Chris Pfarr, 4-1
184 - Bobby Steveson
Champ Pigtail: Bobby Steveson maj dec No. 17 Nick Corba (Cleveland State), 13-3
Champ Rnd 1: No. 12 Drew Foster (Northern Iowa) maj dec Bobby Steveson, 8-0
Cons Rnd 1: Joseph Heyob (Penn) maj dec Bobby Steveson, 10-1
197 - Brett Pfarr
Champ Rnd 1: Brett Pfarr maj dec Matt Correnti (Rutgers), 11-3
Champ Rnd 2: Brett Pfarr dec No. 20 Brad Johnson (Oklahoma), 6-1
285 - Michael Kroells
Champ Rnd 1: Michael Kroells dec Austin Myers (Missouri), 6-0
Champ Rnd 2: Michael Kroells dec (TB-2) No. 9 Denzel Dejournette (Appalachian State), 5-3
Gophers Score Big in the Classroom
Whether measured by grade point averages, conference rankings or individual academic accolades, 2016-17 set a new academic standard for Gopher Wrestling
Bleise Becomes Newest Gopher
Two-time NCAA qualifier Steve Bleise will transfer from Northern Illinois and join the Gophers this fall
McKee Earns Junior World Team Spot
Mitch McKee will represent the USA at 60 kg in Finland this August, while Tony Nelson earns a senior national team spot by finishing third at 125 kg