Senior transfer Russell makes Minnesota loaded in the lightweights, with Lizak and McKee to follow in the lineup

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | Nov. 16, 2018, 4:09 p.m. (ET)
Sean Russell of Minnesota secures a single leg against Air Force’s Sidney Flores in their recent dual meet. Photo by Patricia Fox.

Minnesota has high hopes for the 2018-19 season, but things are looking even better this year with the addition of senior Sean Russell, an All-American transfer from Edinboro, who has slid into the 125-pound spot in the Gopher lineup.

The insertion of Russell allows two other special talents, two-time All-American Ethan Lizak and Junior World silver medalist Mitchell McKee to slide up one weight class, which could give Minnesota one of the strongest lightweight trios in the nation.

All three athletes scored wins in their opening dual meet against Air Force this past Sunday, with Russell and Lizak winning by decisions and McKee getting a first-period pin. If these three talents perform the way they expect to during both dual meets and tournaments, Minnesota should be a tough team.

Russell chose to transfer after long-time Edinboro head coach Tim Flynn left to take over the West Virginia program. In the short time he has been in Minneapolis, Russell already likes the decision he made to finish his career as a Gopher.

“It has been awesome, with the team chemistry and the atmosphere I am in. A lot of great guys, a lot of high-level guys with really high goals. It’s the environment I am in, day to day, with a lot of success around me and a lot of good people,” said Russell.

Head Coach Brandon Eggum has been impressed, not only with his performance but also the way he carries himself as part of the team.

“Sean has been a guy who you would think has been here five years. He fit right in. He promotes the program. He is always happy, always positive. He works hard. We are excited to have him here. He has been a great leader. At 125, he should do some great things for us. It has been a great transition for him,” said Eggum.

A four-time state champion for tough Collins High School in Georgia, Russell competed in the Eastern Wrestling League at Edinboro, winning the conference all three years. He qualified for the NCAA all three seasons there, including a seventh-place finish in 2017. One thing that is new for him will be the challenge of the Big Ten schedule, something he is looking forward to taking on.

“Since I was 10 years old, you know about the Big Ten wrestling. Everyone knows it’s the toughest conference. Everyone knows you have to be a tough individual to wrestle in that conference. Getting to do that with Minnesota is super exciting and I look forward to all the duals,” said Russell.

Putting Russell in the lineup allowed two tough wrestlers to go up in weight, and look to prove themselves against some different opponents.

Lizak was an NCAA runner-up in 2017 and was fourth in 2018. He was tall for a 125-pounder and used that length to his advantage. However, without having to focus as much on weight control, many expect Lizak to be just as tough at his new weight class.

“Lizak has a smile on his face now. He talks a lot different than when he was making 125. It was the first thing I asked him at the Daktronics tournament last week. I asked him ‘What’s it like?’ He said it was a big difference. Even in the match today, he seems more comfortable. He is smiling out there. It is always awesome to see guys do that. Lizak is the type of guy who can do some dangerous things, score a lot of points. He is going to lead us very well. He is a senior and we are excited to see him progress throughout the season,” said Eggum.

Russell, who knew all about Lizak as one of his top challengers at 125 pounds in recent seasons, has come to respect Lizak even more since they have been teammates and training partners.

“Lizak is an awesome partner. The dude is the best top wrestler I have ever wrestled with and unbelievable in scrambling. He helps me day in and day out. He is unbelievably strong, very good in a lot of positions.” Russell said.

McKee has twice been a Round-of-16 competitor at the NCAA Championships at 133 pounds, losing in the blood round as a freshman and sophomore. He also made a big splash on the freestyle scene with his 2017 Junior World silver medal, when he showed that he is not only extremely technically skilled, but also has the passion and purpose to win under pressure.

McKee is very excited about being able to move up to 141 and focus more on those skills and techniques.

“In years past, it was hard to get through the season, cutting so much weight. Sometimes you don’t improve, cutting that much weight. It is a long season, and some people just try to get through it to get to the NCAAs. I am excited to work on stuff during the season, to better myself all throughout the season. It’s to get to the NCAA and be better from now until then,” McKee said.

Eggum has high expectations for McKee at his new weight class, where he believe in his ability to become an All-American and a national champion.

“Mitchell is awesome to watch. Like a lot of our lightweights, we moved them all up a weight class. A lot of people wondered how these guys would do. I think the adjustments have been really well, especially for Mitchell, who was a big 133-pounder. He has been a blood-round guy twice and has already proven he is right there. He wants to get on the top of that podium and has the ability to do it. He is always a high-flying, very exciting wrestler. He does get a lot of pins. He has some horsepower,” said Eggum.

McKee has bought into the change of weight class, and believes he is a better wrestler than the past two seasons.

“We have some of the best partners in the country. Being able to work with them, and work with guys who are really good in positions maybe you aren’t as good in. I feel in some of my positions I wasn’t good in the past, I have worked on them and gotten a lot better at them. I am confident when I am out there on the mat,” he said.

With Russell on the team, this gives the Gophers a powerful 1-2-3 punch at the start of the lineup. When these three wrestlers are all able to win in a dual meet, it greatly increases Minnesota’s chances to close out the dual with a team victory. In addition, all three are capable of securing big-time team points in a tournament setting.

Russell gives credit to his teammate and coaches, including assistants Zach Sanders and Jayson Ness, for helping the lighter wrestlers prepare for success.

“Our room is so deep for my weight class. In my opinion, I have the best room in the nation for a 125-pounder,” he said.

Russell has also learned about how important and popular wrestling is in Minnesota, even though he has not yet been able to perform at a home dual meet or tournament in front of the Gopher fans.

“We are in Colorado, and we have a good amount of fans here. I can hear them. That’s crazy. It is something you really appreciate as an athlete. My time here so far as a Gopher has been awesome. I love it,” he said.

The good news for Gopher fans is that Minnesota also has talent throughout the lineup, and it won’t be just up to the lighter wrestlers to help them win and achieve great things.

“We are pretty deep at every weight this year. Some years, even our team, you don’t always have that. This is great, because we push each other every single day. This year feels a little different. We are one big team. We all feel like brothers,” said McKee.

No. 13 Minnesota gets its first big-time test on Sunday, when No. 4 Oklahoma State travels to Minneapolis for another Big Ten vs. Big 12 dual meet. The Gopher lightweights will have some serious battles in this dual meet, as the Cowboys are also loaded early in their lineup and could start No. 5 Nick Piccininni at 125, No. 10 and 2017 Junior World champion Daton Fix at 133 and No. 5 Kaid Brock at 141. In the TrackWrestling rankings, Russell is at No. 8, Lizak is at No. 6 and McKee is at No. 8, meaning only Lizak has a higher ranking than their opponent.

Eggum knows it’s early in the year, but he has confidence in his entire lineup and can’t wait to see how they do as they battle against the nation’s best all season long.

“I am excited. You have to come out and wrestle, no doubt about it. We have guys who have good skills and they work hard and do a lot of things right. It should be a good crew. We have to keep them healthy and keep them confident in themselves, and make sure they are scoring points on the mat. I know they have the ability to do that. I think it will be a fun year,” he said.