Minnesota wins National Duals title
An Oklahoma State alum won the National Duals wrestling title but it wasn't the guy who coaches the Cowboys, John Smith. Nor did the much-anticipated rematch of Oklahoma State and Iowa take place.
Instead, Sunday at Gallagher-Iba Arena was the day of the Gophers. No. 3 Minnesota first topped the No. 4 Hawkeyes in a 16-15 semifinal thriller, and then downed the host Cowboys -- the top-ranked team in the country -- 18-13 for the championship.
Minnesota coach J Robinson, who wrestled for Oklahoma State in the 1960s, left Stillwater, Okla., the big winner. It was the Gophers' first triumph against Iowa since 2007 and the first over Oklahoma State since 2006. And it avenged Minnesota's losses earlier this season to both the Hawkeyes and Cowboys.
"We talked a lot about just being ready mentally," Robinson said. "Basically what I told the team is that, 'There's very few times in your life you're going to get a chance to be national champions. And the beauty of it is, it's all in your hands. So what you do in these next two matches define a lot if you win, you get to keep it for the rest of your life.'"
Robinson has led Minnesota to the NCAA title three times: in 2001, '02 and '07. The NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals is not an NCAA-sanctioned national championship event. However, there are many folks in wrestling who'd love to see it become just that. Others are more lukewarm and prefer the NCAA meet stay as it is, with the team title being decided by the cumulative success of each squad's qualifying individuals, rather than supplementing the individual tournament with a dual-meet format.
"The best dual-meet team in the nation right now is us," Robinson said. "Not necessarily the best 'individual' team."
That will be decided at a later date.
"I told our team, 'Today was a team effort. There's 10 guys that came here and won. You go to the national tournament, you might qualify only seven. So there's seven guys. Is that your team? No, it's not your team; it's seven individuals.' And I don't mean that [in a bad way], but the dual-meet season is over."
Whatever the future holds in regard to any changes with the NCAA meet/format could depend in part on the success of this new National Duals format, which started this year. There were four regional meets the previous weekend, and then a "final four" on Sunday.
The Cowboys drew 4,453 fans for the title match against Minnesota, and it's fair to say they were hoping for more than that. Then again, some fans might have skipped the afternoon semifinals with the plan of seeing Oklahoma State and longtime national rival Iowa go head-to-head in the evening. But that matchup didn't materialize.
The best dual-meet team in the nation right now is us. Not necessarily the best 'individual' team.
--Minnesota wrestling coach J Robinson
The Cowboys had defeated the Hawkeyes 17-16 in a dual meet in Iowa City, Iowa, on Jan. 7. That victory propelled Oklahoma State to the No. 1 ranking. The Cowboys stayed unbeaten -- including a narrow 19-18 Bedlam win over Oklahoma on Thursday -- until meeting the Gophers. But that victory over the Sooners came at a cost for Oklahoma State, which lost heavyweight Alan Gelogaev to a season-ending injury.
That put freshman Austin Marsden into the lineup. A late takedown gave him a 3-2 decision over Illinois' Patrick Walker in Sunday's semifinals, and OSU beat No. 5 Illinois 19-15. That sent the Cowboys to the final, but Marsden couldn't stay with Minnesota heavyweight Tony Nelson, who won 8-1.
Not that the heavyweight match alone doomed Oklahoma State, which had other close matches at certain weights that it missed out on. Still, the Cowboys' being compromised a bit by inexperience at heavyweight -- despite a gallant effort by Marsden -- points out the difference in having a true dual-meet championship format. It means that every spot in the lineup is equally important, and it highlights the "team" aspect of wrestling.
"Knowing the team I was going to put out on the mat, we couldn't lose some of those matches that we knew were going to be real tight," Oklahoma State's Smith said. "The bottom line is in dual meets when you have someone injured, you know that you have got to have upsets. You have to pull them off. We didn't quite get it done. I give credit to Minnesota because they did enough to win on our turf."
The Gophers won their semifinal against Iowa 16-15, avenging a 19-17 loss to the Hawkeyes on Jan. 29 in Iowa City. They had lost 23-14 to Oklahoma State in Stillwater back in December.
"We started out the year and wanted to find out where we were and what we had to do," Robinson said of the Gophers' early results, which included a 23-14 victory over defending national champion Penn State in November.
"This is one of the deals where it worked out the way it's supposed to work out. We're not there yet, and this is just kind of one step in where we want to be."
Next up for Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois is the Big Ten championships, which of course will also feature Penn State. The Nittany Lions did not participate in the National Duals as coach Cael Sanderson made other scheduling commitments. The Big Ten meet is March 3-4 at Purdue.
The Cowboys have a dual at home Friday against Missouri, then go to the Big 12 championships on March 3. That meet will be hosted in Columbia, Mo., by the Tigers, who are in their last season in the Big 12. The NCAA meet is also in the Show-Me State, March 15-17 in St. Louis.
The Cowboys certainly are still in the hunt for another national championship. So are Penn State and Iowa, among others. That group includes Minnesota, which hopes for results next month as good as what it achieved Sunday in the National Duals.
"We came here to just focus on what we needed to do and just try to stay in that moment," Robinson said. "And it worked out pretty well."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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