By almost any measure, the 2017 Southern Scuffle was Minnesota’s most successful appearance in the event in several years. This year’s Gophers had more finalists, more placewinners, more team points and their best finish in the event since 2014, highlighted by Ethan Lizak’s superlative run to the 125-pound title.
Minnesota took fourth in the team race, scoring 118 points. That point total is significantly better than the 79.5 the team posted in last year’s event. Finishing ahead of Minnesota were a trio of top-10 teams: No. 1 Oklahoma State, No. 5 Missouri and No. 9 Lehigh.
“I thought we competed really well both days. Our guys wrestled with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and they were in position to contend for a top finish,” said head coach Brandon Eggum. “We’re excited by how they competed. Barring losing a couple of tight scrambles or losing out on a couple close calls, we could have done even better. We have to continue improving but there was a lot to be excited about this weekend.”
In his first appearance wrestling attached for Minnesota since the 2015 NCAA Championships, Lizak chewed through competitors with his signature strength in the top position, exhausting opponents and piling up points with tilts and turns.
“Everyone knows he’s crazy dangerous on top, and he’s even upped his game a little bit there, but he’s become a very tough guy to wrestle. You shoot on him and he takes the points. Get in deep? He takes the points. And if he shoots on you, he takes the points. It’s great to see him competing at this high level,” said Eggum.
The manner in which Lizak dispatched challengers left little doubt he was the best in his bracket these past two days. He defeated all five of his opponents by major decision or tech fall, running up a ridiculous cumulative score of 61-9. Those convincing results came against three opponents ranked among the country’s 12 best.
“He beat some quality guys this weekend. He got better and better as the tournament went on,” added Eggum.
Brett Pfarr, ranked second at 197 pounds, reached the finals of the Scuffle for the second straight year. Standing opposite him on the finals mat Monday night was the only wrestler ranked above him in the country – defending national champion and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist J’Den Cox (Missouri). Cox had twice defeated Pfarr last season, including in the NCAA semifinals. In their latest meeting, Cox scored the opening takedown, which Pfarr matched in the second period. Tied 4-4 with fewer than 10 seconds remaining, Cox finished a double-leg takedown to defeat Pfarr, 6-4. Pfarr’s second-place performance matches his effort from last year’s Scuffle.
Also appearing in the finals for Minnesota was heavyweight Michael Kroells. After a thrilling comeback in last night’s quarterfinals kept him on the championship side of the field, Kroells picked up a top-10 victory in Monday morning’s semifinals to reach the title match. An early takedown surrendered to No. 17 Jacob Kasper (Duke) proved to be the difference in that contest, as Kroells fell 5-3. Kroells’ runner-up finish is one position better than his third-place performance in the event last year.
Prior to Monday night, Minnesota last had three finalists at the Southern Scuffle in 2014. That year was also the last time the Gophers had an individual champion, when Scott Schiller and Tony Nelson won titles at 197 pounds and heavyweight, respectively.
Beyond its three finalists, Minnesota had four additional medal match participants.
This group was led by Nick Wanzek and his fourth-place finish at 165 pounds, a weight to which Wanzek dropped down this weekend after wrestling at 174 during first semester. Wanzek went 6-2 at his new weight, losing only to No. 13 Bryce Steiert (Northern Iowa). Steiert defeated Wanzek 6-4 in Sunday’s quarterfinals, then again earned a two-point win, 5-3, in Monday’s third-place match.
Jake Short took fifth after winning a pair of consolation matches Monday morning to stave off elimination from the tournament. A loss to No. 6 Joey LaVallee (Missouri) was the only loss on the tournament’s second day for Short, who finished with a strong, 6-2 decision in the fifth-place match.
Mitch McKee (sixth at 133) and Tommy Thorn (seventh at 141) also stood on the podium Monday evening.
Minnesota’s seven seeded wrestlers were all placewinners, nearly doubling the team’s total from last year, when four reached the podium steps. Three of Monday’s placewinners were among those who accomplished the feat last year for Minnesota: Thorn, who finished fifth last year; Pfarr and Kroells. The seven placewinners were the most for Minnesota since 2014, when the team produced eight.
The Southern Scuffle was Minnesota’s last team tournament prior to March’s Big Ten and NCAA Championships. The Gophers will return to the mat this coming Friday, when they welcome No. 2 Penn State to the Sports Pavilion. Tickets for that dual are still available at MyGopherSports.com.