Gophers hold slight edge over Illinois at Big Ten tourney

By Craig Sesker | March 05, 2006, 8:44 a.m. (ET)
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - The atmosphere was electric, the intensity level high and the competition fierce. Precisely what you would expect at a tournament of this magnitude.

It was just 15 minutes into the semifinal round of the Big Ten wrestling championships Saturday night and the Assembly Hall fans already were on their feet.

The first two matches of the semis at 125 pounds were headed into double-overtime.

The first day of the Big Ten meet more than lived up to its advanced billing, with NCAA tournament-type matches and wild, down-to-the-wire bouts the rule rather than the exception Saturday at Indiana University.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers also lived up to their No. 1 ranking by finishing a perfect 6-0 in the semifinal round to grab the lead in the team race with 116.5 points. Reaching the finals for Minnesota were Mack Reiter (133), Dustin Schlatter (149), C.P. Schlatter (157), Matt Nagel (165), Roger Kish (184) and Cole Konrad (heavyweight).

"It was a good day for us overall," Minnesota coach J Robinson said. "We lost a couple guys that we don't get to take to nationals, so that's kind of disappointing. But getting six finalists, we thought we could do that and it was great to see. Our guys seemed to handle the pressure really well. We wrestled aggressively and had fun, that's been the key for us all year."

Ninth-ranked Illinois was a close second with five finalists and 112 points. Making the finals for the defending Big Ten champion Fighting Illini were Kyle Ott (125), Troy Tirapelle (149), Alex Tirapelle (157), Pete Friedl (184) and Tyrone Byrd (197).

"We had a great round - when you put five guys in the finals in this tournament that means things are going well," Illinois coach Mark Johnson said. "Our guys are coming together at the right time."

It was a disappointing showing for No. 2 Michigan, which saw Big Ten champ Eric Tannenbaum (149) upset in the first round and No. 1 seed and returning champ Josh Churella (141) fall in the semifinals. The Wolverines are in third with 89 points and two finalists in Ryan Churella (165) and Greg Wagner (heavyweight).

The finals are set for 2 p.m. Sunday. The top seven qualifiers in each weight class, plus two wild cards overall, qualify for the NCAA Championhips March 16-18 in Oklahoma City.

It was rough session, to say the least, for the Iowa Hawkeyes. The team that has won this event a whopping 31 times struggled to a 1-4 finish in the semifinals. The lone Hawkeye to reach the finals, Mark Perry (174), pinned Illinois' Donny Reynolds in the semis. Iowa is in fourth with 72.5 points.

The second-seeded Perry, an NCAA runner-up at 165 last year, will now face No. 1 Jake Herbert of Northwestern in the finals. Herbert edged Perry earlier this year in the finals of the Midlands Championships.

Iowa had just one league finalist for the second straight season.

"It was a rough day," Iowa coach Jim Zalesky said. "We are making too many mistakes in close matches that are getting us beat. It's nothing big, it's just little things that are happening too often."

Reynolds fired in deep on a shot against Perry before the Hawkeye sophomore executed a superb counter that culminated a few seconds later when Perry cradled Reynolds for a quick, first-period fall.

"It's disappointing to be the only guy in the finals," Perry said. "It's getting to the point where it's ridiculous . . . I can't even explain how hard it's been to be on a team that's not succeeding to the level we want to and train to. I know it's hard on the coaches and all the individuals."

The two 125-pound semifinal matches were instant classics.

The first was when Ott pulled out a 5-4 double-overtime win over Indiana's Joe Dubuque. Ott backed into Dubuque and reversed him in the first 30-second tiebreaker. Dubuque escaped to make it 4-3, but he was called for a caution in the second 30-second period to make it 5-3.

Dubuque escaped again, but could not secure a takedown as he chased Ott frantically in the final seconds. Dubuque edged Ott in last year's NCAA finals.

In the other semifinal at 125, defending Big Ten champ Nick Simmons of Michigan State trailed 3-1 late in the match before scoring a takedown with two seconds left in regulation to tie it. After a scoreless one-minute overtime, Simmons locked Northwestern's John Velez in a spladle in the first 30-second period and scored a three-point near fall. That propelled him to a 6-3 win in double-overtime.

Simmons beat Ott in last year's Big Ten final.

Troy Tirapelle was unseeded, but hardly came to his first Big Ten meet without solid credentials. He was a three-time California state champ and had won over 20 matches this year, but couldn't crack the top eight seeds in a tough 149 class in the Big Ten.

Tirapelle started his Cinderella run by upsetting Tanenbaum, then he beat No. 6 Tyler Turner of Wisconsin 4-1 in the quarters and No. 2 Ty Eustice of Iowa 4-1 in the semis. Next up is top seed Dustin Schlatter of Minnesota. Schlatter is a true freshman, Tirapelle a redshirt freshman.

"What Troy did was pretty unbelievable," Coach Johnson said. "We knew the kid was talented and obviously has great bloodlines. He was very good today for us. He has grown and learned, and it paid off for him."

Tirapelle's oldest brother, Adam, was a NCAA champion in 2001 while Alex is ranked No. 1 this year at 157.

"I think some people wondered before this tournament if (Troy) would even qualify for nationals this year," Alex said. "He knows how to wrestle when it counts and he's proven that. He's really on a roll here and won some huge matches. He's outsmarted a lot of guys and really built his confidence."

One of the most anticipated semifinal matches ended up fairly one-sided as Wisconsin's Tom Clum rolled to a 11-4 win over Purdue's Chris Fleeger at 133. Both are former Big Ten champs and Fleeger was a NCAA runner-up in 2003. Clum dominated on his feet, shooting in to score three takedowns in the win.

Clum will battle the top-ranked Reiter in the finals. Reiter edged Michigan's Mark Moos 4-3 in the semis.

The fourth-seeded Friedl, who won Big Tens at 174 last year, knocked off returning 184 champ Eric Bradley of Penn State 2-1 in double-overtime in the semis. The No. 3 Kish downed No. 2 Ben Wissel of Purdue 9-5 in the other semi at 184.

The seeds were right on at 197 as the No. 1 Byrd will meet No. 2 Phillip Davis of Penn State for the title.

Michigan State's second-seeded Andy Simmons (141) downed No. 3 Alex Tsirtsis of Iowa 6-2 in the semis. He will face No. 5 Ryan Lang of Northwestern, who upset the No. 1 Churella 7-5.

The top-ranked Konrad barely popped a sweat in recording two first-period pins in breezing to the final round at heavyweight. The NCAA runner-up will meet Wagner, who won by default in the semis.

The No. 3 Nagel, who downed No. 2 Mike Poeta of Illinois 4-2 in the semis, said the Gophers have excelled with a strong blend of seniors and newcomers in the rugged league tournament.

"I think sometimes you forget how tough and competitive this tournament is until you get here again," Nagel said. "Those 125-pound matches really got everything going at the start of the semis and really fired us up. This is just like the NCAAs. You couldn't ask for any better warmup for nationals."

Nagel said he likes the makeup of the Minnesota team.

"We have so many guys picking each other up," Nagel said. "When you see a true freshman like Dustin Schlatter doing what he's doing, it's just awesome and amazing. We really feed off that. He inspires everybody on the team. He has the poise of a senior. He's confident in everything he does."