The Gopher coaching staff and the five NCAA participants on the Minnesota roster left Minneapolis on Tuesday for New York City and the 2016 NCAA Championships. While that travel party is a little smaller than it has been for recent Gopher teams, the expectations and preparation for this group are certainly no less.
“I don’t think you approach it any differently,” said head coach J Robinson. “These guys are there to be national champions. That’s their goal. That’s their focus. The only difference is the number – five, nine, ten. Other than that, there’s no difference.”
Of Robinson’s five wrestlers – Tommy Thorn, Jake Short, Nick Wanzek, Brett Pfarr and Michael Kroells – only Pfarr and Kroells have wrestled in the event before, both making their first career appearances last season, and Kroells alone has an All-America medal in his trophy case. That youth has no bearing on what Robinson stresses to his wrestlers, however.
“The message you give anybody before they compete is that it’s competition and you just take it one match at a time. That’s all you can do,” said Robinson. “You go out there and you wrestle seven minutes as hard as you can. That message never changes.”
While it’s a simple message, Pfarr understands from his own experience that acting on that idea is the real challenge.
It’s hard to focus on just one match “because sometimes your mind gets running,” said Pfarr. To combat that, Pfarr says he tries to keep his thoughts on anything but wrestling. “I’m not even trying to think about wrestling yet. I’ll probably think about the national tournament on Thursday when I have to wrestle in it. That way, I don’t get my emotions too high and let the wheels spin in my head. It’s going to come no matter what, whether I think about it or not. I’ll just let it happen Thursday.”
First Time, Long Time
While Pfarr prepares for his second shot at NCAAs by downplaying the excitement, limited national tournament experience has bred seemingly limitless energy among the trio of Gophers making their NCAA debut. The energy comes from the elation of competing in an event that has been central to their goals in wrestling for most of their lives.
“It’s going to be a fun environment,” said Thorn, who has attended at least 10 national tournaments in the past to cheer on his brothers – two-time Gopher All-Americans Mike and Dave – and root for his hometown team. “I’m excited it’s my turn now. This is what I’ve trained for pretty much my whole life.”
“I’ve been super excited for this moment for a long time,” said Short. “I’ve been waiting a long time to get out there and let it all hang out. I’m ready.”
“I’m pretty ecstatic about [the opportunity],” said Wanzek as he considered he’s first shot at the national tournament. “The past 13 years [I’ve spent] wrestling, all the blood, sweat and tears, finally I can go and try to accomplish my goal that I set all those years ago. It’s pretty sweet.”
Despite that anticipation, the younger Gophers haven’t lost sight of their coach’s message. That’s particular true of Wanzek, who has learned firsthand the pitfalls of looking beyond the next match at other tournaments.
“I’m just focusing on that first match … I haven’t really looked ahead,” said Wanzek. “I’ve made that mistake in the past and it’s come back to bite me in the butt. I’ve learned my lesson and want to focus on that first match.”
Current and past Gophers often describe the team as a brotherhood, a collection of like-minded young men who do almost everything together. Like any good big brothers would, the older pair among the current collection of Gophers had a bit of advice for the younger three based on their experiences last season. Showing that sense of like-mindedness, the advice was largely the same.
“I learned last year, you’ve got to go out there and have fun,” said Pfarr, reflecting on his first experience at the national tournament last spring. “I was a little stiff last year, I didn’t wrestle like I had during the season or like I was capable of.
“Have faith in how you’ve done so far this season and use that to push forward,” he added.
“Don’t try to change your wrestling too much,” advised Kroells. “The NCAA tournament is one percent of the year. We’ve done all the training, all the workouts, all the tournaments, all the preparation. Just keep doing what you’ve been successful with the rest of the year.”
Despite his All-American performance last year, Kroells sees ways in which he can improve, advice that can help any of his teammates as well.
“I think one of the biggest things is to treat [a tournament bout] like any other match,” said Kroells. “Last year I stopped being as offensive-minded in a lot of matches because I was thinking ‘I have to win this one.’ But it’s still just a match in a different setting. Thinking that way will help me out a lot this year.”
Taking a Bite Out of the Big Apple
“The goal is always to be at the top of the podium at the end of the weekend,” said Wanzek, stating a philosophy commonly heard within the Gopher locker room. “If I can string together four or five matches and wrestle at my top ability, there’s no reason why I can’t be on the top.”
“After competing against [the top wrestlers] this year, I know I can beat any one of the guys in my weight,” said Pfarr. “That’s what my attitude will be at the national tournament.”
While reaching the top of the podium is the ultimate goal of every wrestler at every tournament, simply earning a spot anywhere on the podium at NCAAs gives a wrestler All-America status, a tremendous accomplishment.
”If I don’t get on the podium it’ll be a disappointment,” said Thorn, speaking to his goal of becoming an All-American, before continuing, “everybody up there is pretty equal so I don’t see any reason I can’t come out of there as the champion.”
“We need to have five All-Americans,” Robinson answered without hesitation when asked how would define a successful tournament for the team. “They’re here to become All-Americans. They’re here to become national champions. That’s the standard we have.”
With such high expectations on themselves, will the Gophers even enjoy the NCAA wrestling tournament’s first-ever visit to New York City?
“I’ll probably just sit in my hotel room as much as possible when I’m not wrestling,” said Kroells, mentioning that the distractions of a host as dynamic as New York were something he tries to avoid. “I’ll go over [to the arena], wrestle, take care of business and come back to the hotel.”
“It’s business until the tournament’s over, then you get to enjoy,” said Short before quickly reiterating, “but it’s all business until the tournament’s over.”