The defending national champion Minnesota Golden Gopher wrestling team appears to have more than a fighting chance to capture their second straight national crown, if the latest national polls are to be believed. The Gophers are ranked second nationally behind 2008 Big Ten Champion Iowa in both the USA Today/InterMat/NWCA Pre-NCAA Tournament Coaches Poll and W.I.N. Magazine
’s most recent Tournament Power Index poll as they prepare for the 2008 NCAA Championships March 20-22 in St. Louis, Mo.
The Golden Gophers received 462 voting points in the InterMat rankings (18 behind the top-ranked Hawkeyes) after finishing runner-up at last weekend’s Big Ten Championships in Minneapolis. W.I.N. Magazine
projects the Gophers will score 75.5 points at the 2008 NCAA Championships (compared to Iowa’s 90), one point ahead of third-ranked Michigan.
Minnesota held the lead Saturday after day one at the 2008 Big Ten Championships, which were held in Minneapolis’ Williams Arena for the first time since 1997, but was unable to fend off the surging Hawkeyes and relinquished their two-year grip on the conference title. Minnesota sent four wrestlers into the conference finals but was not able to garner a conference champion, finishing 14.5 points (127-112.5) behind Iowa in the team standings.
The Gophers were able to qualify nine wrestlers for the 2008 NCAA Championships in the hopes of overcoming Iowa and defending their 2007 national crown. Jayson Ness (125 pounds), Mack Reiter (133), Manuel Rivera (141), Dustin Schlatter (149), C.P. Schlatter (157), Gabriel Dretsch (174), Roger Kish (184), Justin Bronson (197) and Ben Berhow (Hwt) all qualified with top-seven performances at last weekend’s conference tournament. Minnesota also sent nine wrestlers to nationals last year en route to its third national title since 2001.
Seven of the Gophers' nine NCAA qualifiers are also ranked in the top-10 individually in both polls, includuing No. 2/2 Ness and No. 2/2 Dustin Schlatter.
Preliminary competition at the 2008 NCAA Championships gets underway Thursday, March 20 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. The championship finals will be held Saturday, March 22 and are scheduled to be televised live by ESPN beginning at 7:30 p.m. Central. The Gophers have crowned 10 national champions during the past 10 seasons, including current Minnesota junior Dustin Schlatter in 2006 (149 pounds).
Although the 2008 Big Ten Championships did not go as planned on the mat for Minnesota, they were a resounding success at the turnstiles. The University of Minnesota drew a total of 19,981 spectators to the two-day, three-session event, which required a $70,000 renovation of Williams Arena to accommodate a special four-mat competition floor set-up. The last conference championship to draw a comparable crowd was the 2005 event, which attracted 18,268 to Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
Sunday’s final session drew an announced 7,721 fans to Williams Arena, which unofficially ranks as the third-largest crowd to ever to attend a conference championship final, according to records reported by the Amateur Wrestling News. Iowa holds the national record for any conference with 11,748 for the 1994 finals. The EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) Tournament in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania drew a reported 7,918, and the 1983 Big Ten Championships in Iowa saw 7,245 for its final in 1983.