USA Wrestling 2002 NCAA Div I Wre...

2002 NCAA Div I Wrestling Team Preview

By Gary Abbott | Oct. 05, 2001, 12 a.m. (ET)

The Univ. of Minnesota made wrestling history in 2001, claiming the NCAA Div. I team title with all 10 athletes earning All-American honors and without a single finalist. The Gophers, after many years knocking at the door, were able to win their first-ever NCAA wrestling title with every team member playing an important part in the victory. The question in 2002 is whether any other team has the firepower to stay with Minnesota this year, which lost just two starters. On paper, J Robinson's team has eight returning All-Americans and a room full of young talent, a formula for success that is hard to beat. The Gophers will find out if it is harder to defend a team title than it was to win it for the first time, when they compete at the 2002 NCAA meet, set for Albany, N.Y., March 21-23. The Gophers return three third-place winners, Leroy Vega (125), Owen Elzen (197) and 2000 Olympic bronze medalist Garrett Lowney (285). Lowney is a member of the 2001 U.S. World Greco-Roman team. Returning NCAA fourth-place winners are Luke Becker (157) and Jacob Volkmann (174). Other All-Americans eligible to return include Chad Erikson (141), Jared Lawrence (149) and Damion Hahn (184). If the Gophers are able to move some of these stars into the gold-medal finals, the team race may be over very early in the NCAA Tournament. "The guys are excited about this year. The fans and the boosters are going in with a different attitude. They are the national champions," said Robinson. "Last year it was OK to win the team title without an individual finalist. It was being part of the winning team. The thing that drives the ship this year are the individual desires - more finalists, more champions. It's the reverse of last year." The team that knows all about defending titles is Iowa, which won the six previous titles before Minnesota's breakthrough. Iowa was second to Minnesota in the 2001 team race, but was powered by four seniors who made the finals, all who are now gone. If there was ever a "rebuilding" season at Wrestling U., this might be it. Jim Zalesky's Hawkeyes have two returning All-Americans from last year, the exciting Mike Zadick (fourth at 149) and Ben Shirk (eighth at 165). Athletes hoping to step up into All-American contention include Luke Eustice (125), Matt Anderson (154), Tyler Nixt (174) and Jesse Smith (184). The Hawks are hoping super freshman Steven Mocco will be an immediate star at heavyweight. "We have high goals," said Coach Jim Zalesky. "I have a lot of guys who are tough, and have been behind very tough wrestlers. This team has a lot of room to grow throughout the year. We will need to show improvement throughout the year, and have a team effort." Oklahoma State placed third in the 2001 NCAA meet, and is still trying to find the formula for success at the Big Show. With four All-Americans back, John Smith's Cowboys should once again be in the mix for the team title. Johnny Thompson, who was the NCAA runner-up at 133 as a freshman last year, is the top returnee. The other All-Americans who return include Matt Brown (125), Shane Roller (157) and Tyrone Lewis (165), who has dropped from 174. Roller had an amazing run at the 2001 NCAA meet to finish third, and Lewis should be a major force for the rest of his career. Talented Skyler Holman (125) will wrestle-off for the team, and the battle at 149 will feature transfer John Marc Bentley and veteran Jarred Sanders. Pat Popolizio (184) will be counted on to stay healthy and be nationally competitive. "In comparison to last year, it's hard to replace two of our three finalists," said Coach John Smith. "The team has a lot of potential. For us to be competitive, we will rely on the guys who have been there before. I feel good about what we have at this point. When you look at it, behind Minnesota, there are 5-6 teams tight behind them. It is as competitive as I've ever seen it." Last year, Minnesota, Iowa and Oklahoma State were the Big Three, a step ahead of the rest of the field. Teams such as Oklahoma, Michigan and Illinois have the ability to change that this season, and truly tighten up the team race near the top. Four Oklahoma Sooner All-Americans return from last year's team, led by third-place Witt Durden (133). Placing fourth at the NCAA's last year were Jared Frayer (149) and Leonce Crump (Hwt), and unheralded Josh Lambrecht (184) was seventh. The team will be strong at each weight, with an expected battle at 125 between Matt Ridings and Bo Maynes. Other key starters are Penn State transfer Nate Parker (141), plus Michael Barger (174) and Tommy Grossman (190). "This is the strongest team in my tenure, in talent, depth, attitude and work ethic," said Coach Jack Spates. "It is a group that can contend for a national title. Minnesota is the team to beat, but they can't count us out. If we stay healthy, we will be battling somebody." Another team that should be in the mix all season is Michigan, with five All-Americans back and strength at every weight. It is conceivable that the Wolverines could greatly improve on last year's seventh place at the NCAA meet. The returning All-Americans are A.J. Grant (125), Mike Kulczycki (149), Otto Olson (174), Andy Hrovat (184) and Matt Brink (Hwt). Olson has received a sixth year, and will have another shot at a coveted NCAA title. Veterans include Foley Dowd (133), Clark Forward (141) and Charles Martelli (165). "We are expecting to have a good year," said Coach Joe McFarland. "The guys had a good summer. We have a good blend of experience and youth. We are expecting good things. Having Otto Olson for another year makes our team that much stronger." Illinois had a veteran team last year, but will have two major stars back this year, NCAA champion John Lockhart (Hwt.) and third-place finisher Matt Lackey (165). Both are capable of an appearance in the finals this year, and, with a little support from their teammates, could rack up big points at the NCAA meet. Some of the talented starters include Mark Jayne (133), Ryan Berger (149), and Griff Powell (157). "This will be a very young team," said Coach Mark Johnson. "We have had experienced teams in the last few years. But, they are really great kids. We'll be a better team down the stretch than we will be at the beginning. Our future will be great with these young guys." Iowa State returns two All-Americans, including the biggest name in college wrestling history - Cael Sanderson (184). A three-time NCAA Champion and Outstanding Wrestler, Sanderson has never lost a college match and looks to become the first undefeated four-time champion. Also back is two-time NCAA runner-up Joe Heskett (165) who should be heavily favored to win the title as a senior. Heskett may move up to 174 and Sanderson to 197, acccording to Coach Bobby Douglas, and those two stars alone will rack up big points at the NCAAs regardless what weight they are in. Aaron Holker, a former All-American at BYU, will be at 141. Zach Roberson (133) and Billy Maldonado (149) are also All-American candidates. "Our goal is to finish in the Top Three in the conference and at the Nationals," said Douglas. "We will need five All-Americans and three in the finals to do that. This is a hardworking bunch that is making good progress." Nebraska, which placed eighth last year at the NCAA's, is led by NCAA runner-up Bryan Snyder (157), the preseason choice at the weight. He is the only All-American on a talented young Cornhusker team. Big 12 champion Jason Powell (125) has championship potential. Tony Denke (165) and Justin Ruiz (197) should be top national contenders. "We have potentially eight freshmen or sophomores, which makes us very young and inexperienced," said Coach Mark Manning. "We will get a lot better as the season goes along. They are displaying that they are hard working wrestlers who get after it." Arizona State is coming off a ninth place finish at the NCAAs with a new coach, former Sun Devil star Thom Ortiz. The big guns will be Eric Larkin (141), who was third at last year's NCAA meet, and David Douglas (133), who placed seventh in the nation. Other top stars will in