Nothing excites college wrestling fans more than the anticipation that builds before a high-profile match. Certainly the team aspect of the sport is important the Golden Gophers’ three national titles are a testament to the fact that it takes more than one wrestler to win on a consistent basis but everybody pays attention when the “best of the best” battle each other one-on-one.
Sunday’s home opening dual meet will not only feature the first- and second-ranked teams in the country, the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Iowa State Cyclones, but also the top two wrestlers in the nation at 184 pounds in Roger Kish and Jake Varner.
Even though ISU’s Varner is just a sophomore and Kish is a senior with over 100 career victories, the pair already has a budding rivalry in place. Kish and Varner have won two matches apiece in their four head-to-head meetings, and Sunday will be their second match-up already this season. During the NWCA All-Star Classic in Oregon earlier this month, the two met in one of the most highly anticipated matches of the annual event. In a slow, methodical battle, Varner escaped with a 2-0 decision by scoring only on an escape and a bonus riding time point.
Even though Kish came out on the short end the Oregon exhibition, the Minnesota coaching staff believes it was important first step for the senior as he chases his first-ever national title in 2007-08.
“I think the All-Star (Classic) was good for him, to see where he needs to be and things that he needs to work on,” said Minnesota head coach J Robinson. “The All-Star match didn’t count, so it was a chance to take some risks and see what happens. If you don’t learn anything, then it was for naught; if you learn something, then it was a good deal.”
After Kish got the better of Varner, then a freshman, in two regular season match-ups last season (once in a dual meet and again in January’s National Duals event), it was Varner that won the most pivotal match of the year in March. He upset then-No. 2 Kish in the semifinals at the NCAA Championships, denying the LaPeer, Mich. native a second straight trip to the 184 pound national championship match.
Will their early season match help either wrestler gain an advantage in Sunday’s dual meet at Williams Arena? Kish, a veteran of nearly 130 collegiate matche, believes that his fifth career match with Varner will be just like any other.
“I don’t think (the All-Star match) is going to have any effect on what happens Sunday,” Kish said. “I’m just going to go in there and wrestle with him like I always do for myself, it’s just going to be another match.”
This season, the focus will be on more than individual accomplishments for Kish and fellow returning NCAA qualifiers (and seniors) Mack Reiter, Manuel Rivera, C.P. Schlatter and Gabe Dretsch. With a “changing of the guard” looming just on the horizon for the Golden Gopher program, those seniors will be counted upon to provide more than their normal championship-caliber performances on the mat.
“I think we expect the same thing out of Roger that we expect out of all the seniors we expect them to provide leadership and also to pass on their knowledge, their intensity and their work ethic to some of the younger guys,” said Robinson. “It’s the only way that we can stay at the top every year you have to have this exchange of information.”
Kish himself believes that the team’s tight-knitted nature will help the Gophers succeed in both the short and long run.
“As a team, we’re all pretty close,” Kish said. “We kind of look to each other for help. Some of the younger guys do look up to the older guys, which is a good thing.”
The Gophers’ march towards a second straight national title begins Sunday with what is arguably their most high-profile dual meet of the season. The Kish/Varner battle aside, Robinson believes those in attendance will be treated to some of the best college wrestling action in the country.
“It’ll be a very emotional meet a lot of pride is at stake and a lot will be on the line,” Robinson said. “It’s between number one and number two, and we beat them (in a dual meet) last year and then at the national championships. They’ve got a lot of young guys and will be looking to make a statement, and we want to make a statement about who we are.
“There will be a lot of raw emotion,” he added. “It should be a fun dual meet.”
Article by Ryan Maus, Minnesota Athletic Communications Intern