July 17, 2020 | News | No Comments
Minnesota looks to build on three consecutive top-three finishes by capturing the program’s fourth national title
About 120 days after opening its 2014-15 season, Minnesota heads to the Gateway City for the NCAA Championships this Thursday, Friday and Saturday (March 19-21). Among a field of 330 student-athletes, eight Gophers look to extend a collection of streaks tied to individual and team success at Minnesota and add the program’s fourth national title to its trophy case in Dinkytown.
The Gophers have turned in top-three finishes at three consecutive NCAA tournaments, the second-longest streak in program history. Those results have been buoyed by All-American performances from Gopher wrestlers. Minnesota brings a streak of producing multiple All-Americans in 22 straight NCAA Championships to St. Louis, a run that currently includes five straight season of five or more. During this current, three-year run, Minnesota wrestlers have won 22 All-America medals, 11 of which belong to five seniors on this year’s team.
Minnesota placed second the last time NCAAs were held in St. Louis (2012) and has two additional top-five finishes in the six previous NCAA tournaments held in the Show Me State, placing third in 2000 and fifth in 2005. This season, the Gophers arrive in St. Louis after a third-place finish in the Big Ten Championships and a 12-3 dual season highlighted by seven wins over ranked opponents. Prior to Big Tens, Minnesota had competed in one other national tournament with a team score, the Cliff Keen Invitational in December. Against a field that included 11 ranked teams and nearly 100 ranked wrestlers, the Gophers claimed a pair of individual titles, as well as the team championship.
When Session I begins on Thursday morning, eight Gophers will hit the mat and compete for NCAA titles – three for the first time in their careers and five for the last.
The lone Gopher to receive an at-large bid to this year’s tournament will be the first in action. At 125, true freshman Ethan Lizak was wearing a redshit in mid-January, but injuries forced him into action and he made his dual debut on Jan. 25 against Penn State. Since then, Lizak has picked up a pair of major decisions against Big Ten opponents and a ranked victory over then-No. 13 Josh Rodriguez (North Dakota State) on Feb. 21. He will open the tournament against No. 13 seed Ben Willeford (Cleveland State). An upset in that match would likely have Lizak facing Big Ten champ Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State), while a loss could potentially set up a rematch with Rodriguez in the second round of wrestlebacks.
Chris Dardanes enters the tournament as the top seed at 133 pounds, He earned that position by compiling a 23-0 record this season, a mark that includes 12 wins over ranked opponents and a Big Ten championship. His 23 wins represent both the best start to a season and the longest winning streak of his collegiate career. After wrestling at 141 last season, Dardanes is back at the weight at which he captured All-America medals as both a freshman and a sophomore. Though the Big Ten makes up more than one-third of the field at 133 (12 of 33 wrestlers), it is unlikely Dardanes will see a conference opponent until at least the semifinals, where either fourth-seed Johnni DiJulius (Ohio State) or fifth-seed Zane Richards (Illinois) could be waiting. Dardanes will open the tournament against Connor Schram (Stanford).
Nick Dardanes also returns to a weight where he’s previously earned All-America honors and enters this year’s 141 bracket as the No. 6 seed. Dardanes is the only Gopher who will kick off his tournament against an opponent whom he has already wrestled this season when he opens against Steven Rodrigues (Illinois). Dardanes scored a 9-4 decision over Rodrigues when the two met during a conference dual in Minneapolis on Jan. 18. Should he reach the finals, Dardanes may encounter top-seed and three-time defending champion Logan Stieber (Ohio State). In their match during a Feburary dual, Dardanes lost by a single point, the closest of any of Stieber’s matches this year.
As the No. 3 seed at 157, Dylan Ness represents the second-highest seeded Gopher in the field. Ness reached the title match at the Big Ten Championships for the third time in his career two weeks ago and hopes to wrestle in his third NCAA title match on Saturday. It would be Ness’ second straight appearance in the 157 championship after finishing as runner-up to Alex Dieringer (Oklahoma State) last season. Ness loss just two matches this year – to top-seed Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) and second-seed Brian Realbuto (Cornell). Those two could likely be Ness’ final two opponents in his quest for his first national title. If Ness were to capture All-America honors this year, he would join a select club of Gophers, one which currently has just eight members, as four-time All-Americans at Minnesota. He and his brother, Jayson, would be the first brother tandem in that elite group. Ness’ tournament will begin with a match against Brandon Zeerip (Eastern Michigan).
The other Gopher looking at the prospect of a four-time All-American career is Logan Storley, the sixth seed at 174. Storley will be the higher seed in his first two matches of the tournament before a potential quarterfinal match with Mike Evans (Iowa), the No. 3 seed. Evans and Storley have wrestled six times in their careers previously, including a pair of overtime victories for Evans this season. For Storley, winning a national title could mean not only defeating Evans, but all three of his chief conference rivals, with second-seed Matt Brown (Penn State) and defending national champion and top-seed Robert Kokesh (Nebraska) both appearing as possible opponents. A potential second-round match with Zane Richards (Illinois) means there’s a chance Storley’s championship path will exclusively feature Big Ten opponents after the first round, where he will face Brian Harvey (Army).
Brett Pfarr makes his NCAA Championships debut this season as the No. 11 seed at 184, taking on Scott Patrick (Davidson) in the first round. Pfarr is coming off a title match appearance at the Big Ten tournament and a rugged season in which he has wrestled a team-high 18 ranked opponents in 33 matches. With Pfarr’s ranked-heavy schedule, he’s faced many of the wrestlers he’ll encounter in St. Louis. An opening-round win would guarantee him a very familiar opponent in the second round – either Kenny Courts (Ohio State), against whom Pfarr is 2-1 this season including a victory at the Big Ten Championships, or sixth-seeded Hayden Zillmer (North Dakota State), who has nipped Pfarr three times this season by a grand total of four points.
As the fifth seed at 197, Scott Schiller is seeded to become an All-American for the third time in three career NCAA tournament appearances. Looking across the other top seeds at his weight, there aren’t many mysteries awaiting Schiller in later rounds – this year alone, including the NWCA All-Star Classic exhibition match in which he defeated top-seed and defending national champion J’Den Cox (Missouri), 5-3, Schiller has wrestled seven of the other eight top seeds at his weight. If he handles his opening-round opponent, Bryce Barnes (Army), and sees an upset in the other pairing in his quadrant, there’s a chance Schiller could wrestle four rematches en route to a potential championship, starting with Cody Crawford (Oregon State), whom Schiller defeated 17-6 during December’s Aloha Open.
Among the three Gophers making their first career appearance in the national tournament, heavyweight Michael Kroells will be the last to get started when he challenges Garrett Ryan (Columbia). As a No. 9 seed, Kroells is the highest seed first-timer on the Gopher roster. He enters the NCAAs after placing fifth at Big Tens and narrowly missing an opportunity to knock off eventual conference champion Mike McMullan (Northwestern) in the quarterfinals. With an opening-round victory in St. Louis, Kroells would be guaranteed a rematch with either Jacob Aiken-Phillips (Cornell), who Kroells defeated at the NWCA National Duals, 10-1, or Jimmy Lawson (Penn State), who edged Kroells 3-1 in a dual earlier this season. His No. 9 seed also means Kroells could be the first Gopher to face a top seed at his weight, with defending national champ Nick Gwiazdowski (N.C. State) looming as a potential quarterfinal opponent.
Fans can catch any match of the 2015 NCAA Championships either on TV or online via a variety of ESPN platforms. All Thursday sessions, along with Friday’s quarterfinal matches and Saturday’s medal rounds, will be broadcast on ESPNU. Friday night’s championship semifinals and Saturday night’s championship bouts will be broadcast on ESPN. All matches also will be streamed on ESPN3, with options to watch any mat or to stream up to four mats simultaneously. As always, in addition to broadcast coverage, fans can follow Gopher Wrestling on Twitter for updates throughout the tournament. Recaps from each day of the event will be available on GopherSports.com.
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