Five Golden Gophers, including a pair of first-time qualifiers, will compete at the 79th Division I NCAA Championships in St. Louis, Mo. The championships will unfold at the Scottrade Center for the second consecutive year.
Each of the five Gophers set to wrestle in St. Louis earned their berth via the NCAA’s new automatic qualifying procedures, qualifying by virtue of their finish at last weekend’s Big Ten Championships. Zach Sanders (5th, 125 pounds), Jayson Ness (4th, 133 pounds), Mike Thorn (5th, 141 pounds), Tyler Safratowich (3rd, 157 pounds) and Ben Berhow (4th, Hwt) will represent the Gophers in St. Louis. Sanders, a redshirt freshman, and Thorn, a sophomore, will make their national tournament debuts. Berhow and Safratowich make their second trip while Ness will be seeking his third consecutive All-American certificate.
The NCAA’s selection committee announced up to six at-large bids to the national tournament after the first 28 spots in each weight class were awarded at the conference tournaments. Although as many as three additional Gophers could have been named as at-large bids, neither Matt Everson (174 pounds) nor Sonny Yohn (184 pounds) nor Gordon Bierschnek (197 pounds) got the nod from the selection committee.
The quintet representing the U’ at nationals this season will be working to help J Robinson’s to his 13th consecutive top-10 NCAA finish. Four All-American helped Minnesota finished 10th (61.5 pts) at NCAA’s last year.
Young Team Carries Flag
Minnesota will rely on an uncharacteristically young team this March to carry on a tradition of excellence during championship season. Seven grapplers in the Minnesota lineup at the Big Ten meet made their championship season debuts last weekend. The young and talented group will work to continue on a March tradition of excellence that the team has established over the past decade.
Six of the seven new faces to the Gophers’ Big Ten Championships lineup last weekend did not compete at all at the varsity level last season. Zach Sanders, Mike Thorn, Joe Grygelko and Sonny Yohn each served a redshirt season last year while juniors Matt Everson and Gordon Bierschenk were finishing tours of duty with the U.S. Amry in Iraq. Scott Glasser, who made his postseason debut at Big Ten’s as a sophomore, was injured for much of last season.
With a pin of Indiana’s Matt Ortega on Feb. 22, Jayson Ness tied former Golden Gopher legend Billy Pierce (1992-96) for most pins in the history of Minnesota wrestling with 51.
At the Big Ten meet, Ness broke the record with three more pinfalls. After suffering an 11-4 decision loss in the quarterfinals to Ohio State’s Reece Humphrey, Ness thundered through the 133-pound wrestlebacks with his 17th, 18th and 19th pins of the season. Ness stuck Tom Kelliher of Wisconsin (1:25), Ortega (2:20) and No. 9 Jake Strayer of Penn State (2:59) on his way to a fourth place finish.
This weekend, Ness is a key component of a loaded 133-pound weight class made up largely of Big Ten wrestlers. In the most recent InterMat/USA Today poll, five of the country’s top six 133-pounders attend Big Ten institutions.
Breaking Down Big Ten's
Safratowich was the Gophers’ highest finisher at Big Ten’s, placing 3rd at 157 pounds to lead Minnesota to a fifth place finish (86.0 pts). The Gophers pieced together a 5-3 record in the placing rounds Sunday afternoon to move themselves up the team standings after ending Saturday’s second session in seventh position. Iowa easily won the team title with 141.0 points and Illinois finished second (113.5 pts). Michigan (92.5 pts) and Wisconsin (88.0 pts) each finished just in front of the Gophers.
Ness’ third pin of the tournament highlighted Minnesota’s 3-3 mark in the consolation semifinals that began the action Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Pa. Safratowich and Berhow also won their respective consolation semifinal bouts to earn a spot in the third place matches.
Sanders, Thorn and Gordon Bierschenk (197 pounds) each lost hotly contested matches to Iowa wrestlers in the early afternoon wrestlebacks. Sanders dropped a 5-4 decision to second-seeded Charlie Falck, Thorn lost a narrow 2-1 decision to Alex Tsirtsis and Bierschenk suffered a 6-3 loss in the closing seconds of his match with Chad Beatty.
Matt Everson and Sonny Yohn helped set the tone for the placing rounds with wins in their seventh place matches at 174 pounds and 184 pounds, respectively. Yohn pinned Wisconsin’s Eric Bugenhagen in his only match of the day and Everson bested eighth-seeded Ian Hinton of Michigan State - who was the recipient of an NCAA at-large bid on Mar. 11 - in a close 4-3 match.
Thorn recorded the Gophers’ seventh win of the day with a 4-3 win over Northwestern’s No. 15 Keith Sulzer in the fifth place bout at 141 pounds. Safratowich’s win over Colton Salazar in the third place match at 157 pounds was Minnesota’s final win of the day.
Sanders Burst Onto National Scene
Redshirt freshman Zach Sanders (Wabasha, Minn.) has been one of the most consistent wrestlers of the 2008-09 season for the Gophers. After taking over the 125-pound class from two-time All-American Jayson Ness, Sanders started his 2008-09 campaign with 15 consecutive victories.
The last four of those 15 season-opening wins came at the renowned Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational Dec. 5-6 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Three of Sanders’ wins at the Cliff Keen came against ranked foes. After suffering a loss in the title match of the Las Vegas Invitational to Penn’s sixth-ranked Rollie Peterkin, Sanders reeled off 12 consecutive wins.
His win on Feb. 13 over Wisconsin’s Drew Hammen made him the first Gopher to reach the 30-win plateau this season. He has six pins and eight major decisions to go along with a team-leading 35 victories and five wins by technical fall.
Berhow Turning Heads
Ben Berhow enjoyed a career-long nine-match winning streak punctuated with wins over No. 8 Kyle Massey of Wisconsin and Jordan Johnson of Iowa in the midst of the Big Ten dual season. Berhow’s streak was finally snapped with a loss to top-ranked David Zabriske of Iowa State on Feb. 20.
With a win on Feb. 22 in the Gophers’ Big Ten dual finale against Indiana, Berhow put the finishing touches on a perfect 8-0 mark in Big Ten duals. Berhow was the only Minnesota wrestler with more than six wins in conference duals this season.
His win over Massey on Feb. 13 was his second over the Wisconsin heavyweight this season and helped Berhow to leapfrog Massey in the following week’s InterMat/NWCA individual rankings, moving to 17th in the poll. After suffering an overtime loss to Massey in the Big Ten semifinals, Berhow finished fourth to automatically qualify for the national tournament.
Berhow is ranked 16th nationally by W.I.N. Magazine and 18th by Amateur Wrestling News in the most recent polls.
Early Reviews Prove Positive
After inking the nation’s top recruiting class prior to the 2008-09 season, the Gophers’ 2009 class is already drawing acclaim. Minnesota announced the signing of Jake Kettler (Ramsey, Minn.), Alec Ortiz (Newberg, Ore.), Bart Reiter (Gilbertville, Iowa), Pat Smith (Chaska, Minn.), Kevin Steinhaus (Pennock, Minn.), David Thorn (St. Michael, Minn.) and Danny Zilverberg (Wayzata, Minn.) during the early signing period that culminated with National Signing Day on Nov. 20.
In the issue released Dec. 8, W.I.N. Magazine ranks Minnesota’s early signing class tops in the Big Ten and sixth nationally.
Thorn in Opponents' Sides
Mike Thorn (St. Michael, Minn.) stepped into the Gophers’ starting lineup at 133 pounds for a significant portion of the season during the 2006-07 campaign to fill in for an injured Mack Reiter. After serving a redshirt season last year, and armed with his experience wrestling against some of the best collegiate wresters in the country as a true freshman, Thorn has posted an impressive 29-15 record this season at 141 pounds.
Thorn has racked up a team-high 20 bouts against ranked opponents during the 2008-09 season and has posted a 23-1 mark against unranked foes.