The Season of Opportunity
Gopher Wrestling officially started preseason practice on Monday with plenty of opportunities for young wrestlers to step up this season
The word of the season for Gopher Wrestling entering the 2015-16 campaign is opportunity. With five All-American seniors graduating from last year’s starting 10, there are plenty of chances for young wrestlers to step into the Maroon singlet and claim a coveted spot in the Gopher lineup.
The schedule also provides a lot of early opportunities to perform in competition. Between the Gopher Duals, the Northeast Duals, its home-opener against Air Force and a road trip to Stillwater to take on Oklahoma State, Minnesota will compete in eight November duals, the most in program history. The last time the Gophers wrestled even six duals in November was in 2012-13.
Exactly which 10 Gophers take the mat for those duals may shift a bit as the season progresses, but heading into preseason practice, all eyes are on the spots vacated by graduating seniors at 133, 141, 157, 174 and 197. The five wrestlers who occupied those spots last season – Chris Dardanes, Nick Dardanes, Dylan Ness, Logan Storley and Scott Schiller, respectively – are among the most decorated classes in Gopher history, with 15 All-America medals between them.
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It’s expected that two of those spots will be filled by returning starters who are changing weight classes. Nick Wanzek, who wrestled 165 last year as a redshirt freshman and posted several early season wins over ranked opponents, is the likely starter at 174 this year. Redshirt junior Brett Pfarr, who reached the finals at the Big Ten Championships as a first-year starter last season at 184, will bump up to 197. Those transitions open up their previous weights and set the stage for competition at 133, 141, 157, 165 and 184 heading into this season.
Before delving too deeply into those five positions, there are three other weights where it’s likely that returning starters will again by featured on this year’s team.
At 125, Ethan Lizak stepped up for Minnesota after injuries sidelined two wrestlers ahead of him on the depth chart last season. Lizak removed his redshirt in mid-February and admirably fought a gauntlet of ranked wrestlers, earning his first career win over ranked competition and an at-large berth to the NCAA Championships.
Jake Short’s season was cut short when he was injured during his second match at the Big Ten Championships last year. With the offseason to recover and train, Short is prepared to step back into the 149 spot for the Gophers this season.
Headlining this group of incumbent starters is Minnesota’s lone returning All-American, heavyweight Michael Kroells. Kroells outperformed his seed in both Big Tens and NCAAs last season, the latter of which landed him on the podium in St. Louis. His All-American season was the 19th for a Gopher heavyweight in the past 23 years.
Shifting back to the opportunities in the Gopher lineup, two of these open weights appear to have frontrunners as practice opens. Tommy Thorn looks poised to start as a redshirt freshman at 141. While redshirting last season, Thorn performed well – and at times dominated – on the open circuit, building a 32-5 record. Gopher fans will remember his older brothers Mike and David, who were each two-time All-Americans at Minnesota. At 157, Brandon Kingsley is the likely heir to the spot previously held by Ness. Wrestling fans became accustomed to pins accompanied by varying levels of “Ness funk” at 57 the past few seasons. Kingsley readily admits to not bringing the same level of flair to the mat as Ness, but his focus on pinning opponents is equally intense. Kingsley earned his first varsity letter at Minnesota last season, wrestling several matches at 165.
The remaining three weights appear to be wide-open competitions as the team works toward its Nov. 7 season-opener.
After a shoulder injury took him out of the lineup at 125 last season, Sam Brancale made one varsity appearance at 133, which is the weight he’ll wrestle this season. While Brancale is certainly a contender for this vacated starting spot, redshirt sophomore Nate Thomas will factor into the decision. Like Brancale, Thomas missed much of last season with an injury.
Youth will emerge as 165, where a quartet of redshirt freshmen will be fighting for the opportunity to crack the lineup this season. Colin Carr (who wrestled 174 last season), Brandon Krone, Darius Wright and Dylan Urbach are all contenders for the starting spot. Looking at numbers from last season, Wright’s 22-3 record in open tournaments was the gaudiest, though all four posted winning records while redshirting.
Like 65, 184 looks to be a competition between several candidates. Two among this group – Chris Pfarr and Jordon Rothers – saw their first varsity action last year, but neither at 84. Pfarr wrestled up a weight and stepped in at 197 for the first three duals of the season, while Rothers saw action during National Duals qualifying in Fargo at 174 late in the year. Redshirt freshman Will Balow, along with redshirt sophomore Broc Berge, may also factor into the coaches’ decision at 84.
At wrestling programs throughout the country, opportunities abound this time of year. Nowhere is this more true than in Dinkytown, where Gopher Wrestling prepares to continue a legacy of developing some of the top young talent in the country.
The upcoming 2015-16 season will be an exciting campaign for the Gophers. Don’t miss any of the latest news and updates. Be sure to regularly check on GopherSports.com and follow Gopher Wrestling on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.