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Know Your Wrestling Foe: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota will have a solid team regardless, but the return of Olympic Gold Medalist Gable Steveson would put them in team trophy contention

Gable Steveson, Minnesota’s Big Ten, NCAA and Olympic Champ, has not made a decision on returning for another season.
Jon Johnston / Corn Nation

After taking a look at Nebraska’s potential lineup in 2021-22, we’re into previewing the competition. Here’s the list so far:

Iowa Hawkeyes

Penn State Nittany Lions

Michigan Wolverines

In my opinion, there are multiple tiers among the Big Ten teams. It’s Iowa and Penn State at the top with a pretty wide gap to the second tier. In that second tier, I’d put Nebraska, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State.

It’s time to move on to the Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota was the Big Ten’s fourth-best team at the NCAA tournament, finishing in seventh place with 64 points.

The Gophers lose some starters, but the biggest question is whether Gable Steveson decides to return for another year. The junior won a Big Ten title before winning his first NCAA title and Hodge Trophy. He then went on to win Olympic gold.

He has the ability to win multiple more Big Ten and NCAA titles if he so chooses. He could also pile up world titles and Olympic titles if he so chooses. He’s that good. He’s transcendent.

But what are his plans going forward? Does he want to go to the WWE and play fake wrestling for the money? Does he want to spend a couple years training for a UFC career? I think he could be the heavyweight champ in just a couple years based on his obvious wrestling ability and his sheer athleticism. Have you not seen his backflips?

Does he continue wrestling for Minnesota while adding to his legendary status on the mat with a pile of gold medals?

It’s anyone’s guess to be honest.

But outside of Steveson, Minnesota has a lot of top talent in its starting lineup. The Gophers did lose a few guys to transfers, including starting 133-pounder Boo Dryden to Nebraska, but the majority of their core should be returning.

Weight-By-Weight Preview

125 pounds

Minnesota brings back one of the best in the country here in Patrick McKee. Brother of former All-American Gopher Mitch McKee, Patrick finished the 2021 season on a tear at NCAAs.

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Wrestling Championship
Minnesota’s Patrick McKee holds up seven fingers after going 7-1 at the 2021 NCAA Championships to finish in third place.
Photo by Scott Rovak/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

McKee went 7-1 at NCAAs for a third-place finish. After falling to 2-seed Sam Latona in the second round, McKee won six straight in the consolation bracket. McKee pinned Penn State’s Robert Howard, downed Northern Iowa’s Brody Teske, pinned Wisconsin’s Eric Barnett, then beat Taylor Lamont of Utah Valley and Drew Hildebrant of Central Michigan. As far as the 125-pound field goes, that’s a hell of a string to put together.

He won the Gorriaran Award at the NCAA tournament for the most wins by pinfall with three.

After going 15-7 last year, McKee will be a leader for the Gophers as a junior.

133 pounds

At 133, Minnesota will have to replace Dryden who will probably start for the Huskers at 133 this season. Junior Jake Gliva will probably get the nod after going 7-1 a year ago in extra matches.

Gliva did get a 3-1 win over Nebraska’s Tucker Sjomeling in 2021.

Regardless of who takes the mat for the Gophers here, the weight will most assuredly be a weak spot in their lineup.

141 pounds

This doesn’t seem like a spot that Minnesota has nailed down going into the season. Last year, freshman Marcos Polanco was the team’s starter but went 6-9 on the year. He did qualify for the NCAA tournament though. In his lone match against Nebraska’s Chad Red Jr., the Husker downed him 4-1.

Also an option is Brent Jones, who went 3-1 a year ago in extra matches. The junior has an 18-19 career record for Minnesota.

149 pounds

Sophomore Michael Blockhus returns after his first year as a Gopher after transferring from Northern Iowa. The three-time Iowa state champion, Blockhus went 9-8 in 2021 with a 4th-place finish at the Big Ten Championships and an NCAA qualification.

Blockhus should be improved in his second year in the program, but he did lose to Nebraska’s Brock Hardy 9-2 in the Husker’s collegiate debut. He has a lot to prove.

157 pounds

Arguably Minnesota’s best (probable) returner is sophomore Brayton Lee. After going 25-6 and finishing fourth at the Big Ten Championships in 2019-20, Lee went 14-6 in 2021, finishing third at Big Tens and sixth at NCAAs.

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Wrestling Championship
Brayton Lee (left)
Photo by Scott Rovak/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

In his first NCAA tournament in 2021, after the 2020 tournament was cancelled, Lee earned All-American status. Over the summer, Lee defeated Nebraska’s Ridge Lovett 12-2 on the way to a third-place finish at the U23 World Team Trials

A three-time Indiana state champ in high school, Lee seems poised for big things with three years of eligibility remaining.

165 pounds

Here’s another weight where Minnesota will be set up for years to come. Last season, true freshman Andrew Sparks burst onto the scene with a 7-6 win over Nebraska’s Peyton Robb. He finished the season with a 9-5 record.

After getting injured at the Big Ten Championships, Sparks returned for the NCAA tournament but was obviously not 100 percent and went 0-2 to not place.

Look for a big year from Sparks, who I could also see moving up to 174 eventually.

174 pounds

Here’s a weight where we’ll see a competition. It’ll be between incoming Wisconsin transfer Jared Krattiger and junior Bailee O’Reilly.

Krattiger was brought in for a reason, especially with him having three years of eligibility remaining, so he’ll get a long hard look as a starter. He went an underwhelming 13-22 at Wisconsin, including a 9th-place finish at the 2021 Big Ten Championships.

O’Reilly holds a 39-20 career record for Minnesota, but all of those wins were at 165 pounds. I don’t know that he’s moving up, but with Sparks entrenched at 165, I see no reason for O’Reilly not to move up in an attempt to get back into the starting lineup.

184 pounds

Minnesota will most likely be starting freshman Isaiah Salazar here. The former high school teammate of Nebraska’s Dominick Serrano, Salazar went 4-1 last year, including a 16-3 major decision over Nebraska’s Colton Wolfe.

Serrano and Salazar were Colorado’s first ever teammates to four-peat in the same year. As a freshman, Salazar will likely take his lumps but he’s a very talented young wrestler and has a bright future.

197 pounds

In another weak spot in their lineup, the Gophers return sophomore Garrett Joles. Joles went 4-8 a year ago and didn’t place at Big Tens.

Also an option for Minnesota would be sophomore Rowan Morgan who went 2-0 last year after going 10-9 as a redshirt freshman.

285 pounds

Does Steveson return? In all likelihood, he doesn’t. Let’s be honest. I anticipate he’ll bounce for the big money of the WWE.

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Wrestling Championship
Gable Steveson with his patented backflip
Photo by Scott Rovak/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

So if he doesn’t return, who will man the heavyweight spot for the Gophers?

It’ll be between sophomore Keaton Kluever or true freshman Bennett Tabor. Kluever went 4-1 in 2021 after transferring from North Carolina where he went 10-5 as a freshman.

Tabor was the 23rd-ranked recruit in the class of 2021 and Minnesota’s top-ranked recruit in their No. 7-ranked recruiting class. He’s the heir apparent to Steveson. Will he be ready for that role in 2021-22 though?

How Would Nebraska Fare in a Dual?

Obviously, a lot would hinge on Steveson’s return, but we’re going to assume he’s done with collegiate wrestling.

At 125, Nebraska’s Liam Cronin would have a tough matchup with McKee, but the Husker beat the Gopher 8-1 in his Husker debut in 2021.

Nebraska’s Dryden should have the upper hand against Gliva, while Red should handle Polanco fairly easily.

At 149, Hardy has beaten Blockhus before and can do it again, while Lovett at 157 will probably have his hands full against Lee.

Sparks beat Robb a year ago and would have to be favored in a potential matchup, while Mikey Labriola, Taylor Venz and Eric Schultz would all be heavily favored at 174, 184 and 197, respectively.

At heavyweight, Nebraska’s Christian Lance would be a heavy favorite against either Kluever or Tabor.

Minnesota has a solid squad, but Nebraska should beat the Gophers pretty easily after downing them 22-14 a year ago when they HAD Steveson. Without him, they have very little shot at topping the Huskers.