March 18, 2017 10:28 PM
Powered by two finalists and four total All-Americans, Minnesota finished seventh at the 2017 NCAA Championships, its best finish since 2014. The Golden Gophers return to the top-10 marks the 19th time in the past 21 seasons the team has placed among the country’s 10 best at the national tournament.
“Coming into this season, there were some challenges. If you look at those early rankings, I think a lot of people didn’t believe we could have the type of season and the success that we did,” said Head Coach Brandon Eggum. “I'm really proud of that, of overachieving. I have a lot of respect for the guys on our team. They did a great job of staying together, staying focused and working hard. It was amazing to watch the progress these guys made from the start of the season to now.”
Minnesota’s two finalists – Ethan Lizak at 125 pounds and Brett Pfarr at 197 – both reached the season’s last match for the first time in their respective careers. Pfarr, a senior, and Lizak, a sophomore, gave the Gophers their first tournament with two finalists since 2014, when 157-pounder Dylan Ness and heavyweight Tony Nelson both reached championship matches. Prior to Saturday, the last time Minnesota had two wrestlers make their first career appearance in the finals in the same year was 2012, when the same pair of Ness and Nelson reached the title bouts.
Pfarr entered the finals looking to avenge losses to J’Den Cox (Missouri) in last year’s NCAA semifinals and in this year’s Southern Scuffle finals. The two traded shots early, but Cox struck first with a takedown late in the opening period. A second-period takedown and strong riding ability helped Cox build up a solid lead on Pfarr on his way to an 8-2 victory.
Pfarr wraps up his Minnesota career as a two-time All-American, placing second this year after finishing third last year. The accomplishment of becoming a two-time All-American is particularly noteworthy when considering he won just one Minnesota state title in high school.
“Brett Pfarr making the finals, after coming from Le Sueur as a one-time state champion, you have to give a lot of credit to a guy like him. He put in the time and effort and he lived the right way. He proves if you work hard and you do things right, good things follow. I was honored to be able to sit in his corner,” said Eggum.
In an all-Lehigh Valley final at 125, Lizak took on Darian Cruz (Lehigh). The two grew up fewer than 20 miles away from each other in Pennsylvania. Cruz scored a first-period takedown to take an early lead, but a pair of Lizak escapes knotted the score at two after two periods. Cruz elected to start the third neutral rather than going underneath Lizak, avoiding Lizak’s most dangerous position. The choice paid off, as Cruz scored a late takedown on the edge to take the lead, a takedown upheld after video review that sealed what ended up as a 6-3 decision.
“Your heart goes out to Ethan after losing in the finals but what a great tournament he wrestled to put himself in that position,” said Eggum. “It doesn't get any easier from here, but he can learn from this, pick up some things, and maybe get himself an opportunity to win a national title in the future.”
Lizak’s second-place finish ties the best-ever for a Minnesota 125-pounder at the NCAA tournament, matching Jayson Ness’ runner-up performance in 2008.
The evening’s championship bouts followed Saturday’s early session, during which Tommy Thorn and Michael Kroells wrestled in seventh-place matches at 141 pounds and heavyweight, respectively.
Thorn took an early lead after escaping from four-seed Matt Kolodzik (Princeton) in the second period, but a third-period reversal from Kolodzik helped him take the match, 3-1. Thorn’s eighth-place finish was still six spots above his No. 14 seed entering the event.
He wasn’t the only Gopher wrestling well in relation to his seed. Among Minnesota’s seven seeded wrestlers, six either performed to or above their seeds at the national tournament, led by Thorn’s six-spot over-performance, followed closely by Lizak finishing four spots above his No. 6 seed.
Kroells finished his Gopher career in dominate fashion, taking down Denzel Dejournette (Appalachian State) fewer than 20 seconds into their bout and building from there, ultimately scoring bonus points for Minnesota by earning a 17-2 tech fall. The match was a dramatic departure from Kroells’ double-overtime win over Dejournette in the second round of the tournament on Thursday evening.
“The heavyweight tradition Kroells kept here for the University of Minnesota, as a three-time All-American, is incredible. He’s a great kid and a great leader. It was awesome to see him tech fall his last opponent and end his career like that.”
Kroells’ All-America performance, his third straight, continues a strong history of podium finishes from Minnesota’s biggest wrestlers. The Gophers have now had an All-American at heavyweight 20 times in the past 25 years.
With the 2017 NCAA championships now in the books, the 2016-17 college wrestling season has come to an end.
(Courtesy: University of Minnesota)
Created: March 18, 2017 10:28 PM
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