A Four-Team Race

March 4, 2005

Fans of college wrestling who find their way to the University of Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena this weekend appear to be in for a treat. The race for the top rung of the ladder at the 2005 Big Ten Conference Wrestling Championship appears to be within the reach of four teams, according to three of the coaches with team’s “in the hunt.”

Action begins Saturday at 11 a.m. Iowa time with the championship’s all-important first session. It resumes Saturday at 6 p.m. and concludes with the final session Sunday at noon. Tickets are available for the entire tournament or on a session-by-session basis at the UI Athletic Ticket Office in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Illinois and Michigan – both with four No. 1 seeds – appear to be the teams to beat, but Minnesota and Iowa are candidates for top honors, too.

“Illinois and Michigan are right there. After that, it’s up for grabs,” offered Iowa’s Jim Zalesky, who is hoping his team will take full advantage of the opportunities that come with competing in a familiar environment.

“This is what you work for. You wipe your record clean. Now is what counts. This is where you want to wrestle your best.”
UI Coach Jim Zalesky

“It’s good to be home and not have to travel. We lost a lot of close matches during the Big Ten dual season, but close doesn’t count this time of year. Perhaps the difference this weekend could be the home crowd, the home facility,” Zalesky said.

Zalesky’s lineup includes two No. 2 seeds, one No. 3, one No. 4, and three No. 5’s. Winning early on Saturday is important.

“We have lots of important matches early and we’ll need to take care of business because to win this championship you need to have 10 guys score points,” he said.

“This is what you work for. You wipe your record clean,” Zalesky continued. “Now is what counts. This is where you want to wrestle your best.”

Zalesky said Iowa has had two good weeks of practice and the benefit of being in a big-time setting before. “We’re ready to wrestle. We have a lot of guys with big tournament experience whether that be college or high school and that always helps,” he said.

Iowa’s coach said the wildcard could be the unseeded Hawkeyes. Luke Lofthouse is unseeded at 174 pounds and Adam Fellers is in the same position at 197. Both could be difference-makers for Iowa.

“Those aren’t really deep weights. They kind of drop off rather quickly after three, four,” said Zalesky. “Hopefully, those guys can step up and score some points for us.”

“No. Lots of guys have thrown it on me recently, but I like to throw it right back,” Illinois coach Mark Johnson said when asked if his team was the favorite.

“We have a chance, but we need a total team performance,” Johnson continued. “This is a hard conference to win. It’s a hard thing to do. If we do it, it would be a great accomplishment.”

“We talked at the end of last year about being ready at the end of a season,” said Michigan coach Joe McFarland. “We’ve been consistent this year and so have others. We’re healthy, too.”

McFarland pointed at Illinois. “Illinois is definitely the favorite…at least on paper. It’s always nice to put that pressure on somebody else.”

The 157-pound weight class is a very good example of how competitive the 2005 Big Ten event could be. Illinois’ Alex Tirapelle – the Big Ten Wrestler of the Year and co-Big Ten Wrestler of the Championship a year ago – isn’t the No. 1 seed in his weight class.

Instead, that honor goes to Michigan’s unbeaten Ryan Berlin, who lost to Tirapelle in last year’s championship match. And, waiting in the wings as the No. 3 seed is Iowa’s Joe Johnston.

Iowa lost to both Illinois and Michigan in dual meet competition this year. The Hawkeyes were dealt a 25-7 defeat by the Fighting Illini on Jan. 28 in Champaign and lost to the Wolverines by a 21-11 count on Feb. 13 in Carver-Hawkeye.

Zalesky’s squad beat Minnesota 23-14 on Feb. 11 in Iowa City.

Iowa is the defending champion. The Hawkeyes won their 31st league title last year when they outscored Minnesota, 129.5 to 124.5, in Columbus, Ohio. Zalesky was named the league’s coach of the year for that effort.

The 2004 Hawkeyes crowned one league champion – senior Cliff Moore – out of five finalists. Iowa advanced all 10 of its wrestlers to the national championship.

The participants in this weekend’s event are chasing the 72 entries the Big Ten Conference has for the 2005 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championship to be held Mar. 17-19 at the Savvis Center in St. Louis. The top seven finishers in each weight class in the Big Ten meet automatically advance to the national meet. League coaches also get to add two wildcard qualifiers.

March is historically championship month for Iowa wrestling. The Hawkeyes will be seeking their 32 league title this weekend. The next Iowa wrestler to be crowned champion at his weight will be Iowa’s 100th all-time. A strong showing this weekend also positions Iowa for a run at its 21st national championship in school history. A team victory in St. Louis would be the Hawkeyes’ 10th in their last 15 seasons.