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Minnesota's Tony Nelson ready to make another run at No. 1
Craig Sesker USA Wrestling

Minnesota’s Tony Nelson won an NCAA title this past March. Tony Rotundo photo.

There are a number of reasons why 66-year-old J Robinson is having so much fun coaching right now.

Working with young men like junior Tony Nelson is near the top of the list.

The massive 6-foot-4 Nelson not only is a returning NCAA champion who placed fifth at the 2012 University World Championships in freestyle wrestling.

He sets the standard as one of the leaders on a strong Minnesota team that is ranked No. 1 in at least one national poll.

And the scary part? Nelson is still learning.

“Tony’s a pleasure to work with – he’s unbelievably coachable,” Robinson said. “He has really high goals in this sport and he realizes he has a lot of work to do to get there. He’s already a very good heavyweight, but he wants to be better. He needs to shoot a little bit more on his feet and work on some things down on the mat, and he understands that. But he’s done a great job and he continues to make great progress.”

That progress was evident when Nelson scored on numerous takedowns in earning an 11-2 major decision win over Nebraska’s Donny Longendyke this past Friday in a Big Ten dual meet in Lincoln. Nelson is a strong, powerful wrestler who is difficult to score on. Now he’s becoming more adept and potent offensively.

Part of the reason for that is Nelson focused on freestyle wrestling this past spring and summer. He won titles at the University Nationals and University World Team Trials. He beat past Junior World champion Dom Bradley in the University Nationals finals.

“I feel like wrestling freestyle has really helped me with my takedowns,” said Nelson, a past USA Wrestling Junior Nationals champion in freestyle. “I’m able to score more points on my feet now in college. I’m working on scoring more points, so my matches don’t stay so close this year.”

Nelson was in a somewhat unfamiliar position for a heavyweight in the dual meet with Nebraska. His match was drawn first for the dual. Heavyweights typically wrestle last, including in tournaments.

“It was kind of different, and it’s a big change, but I kind of liked wrestling first,” he said. “I got to relax for the rest of the dual and just cheer on my teammates.”

Those teammates have Gopher fans talking national title this season. Minnesota finished second in the nation last year to Big Ten rival Penn State, which is No. 1 in most national polls this year and shooting for its third straight national title.

The Gophers have won three national titles under Robinson, with the most recent being in 2007.

“We have a great opportunity this year with the guys we have on our team,” said Nelson, who compiled a 4.0 grade-point average in high school. “Our starting lineup is tough, and even the backups are strong. I don’t see why we can’t be the No. 1 team this year. We were second last year and we’re hungry to get to the top this year.”

Nelson’s freestyle skills have caught the attention of U.S. National Coach Zeke Jones. Nelson placed second in the Canada Cup this past June at 120 kg/264.5 lbs.

“Tony’s got a huge upside,” Jones said. “He’s an athletic heavyweight who has good leg attacks. That works well on the international level. We took him to Canada to plug into our freestyle program and get around the Olympic team some. He definitely learned a lot and made some progress.

“Like our top targeted college wrestlers for this Olympic cycle, Tony will need work on the freestyle transition like his gut-wrench and chest lock defense, and other common freestyle skills not learned until they move to the Olympic level. When he does that, he’ll make the leap to international wrestling in a big way.”

Nelson has continued the strong run of top collegiate heavyweights at Minnesota that has included past Gopher stars like Cole Konrad, Brock Lesnar, Garrett Lowney and Shelton Benjamin.

Nelson grew up in Cambridge, Minn., and was a Minnesota state wrestling champion at 215 pounds as a senior. He also was an all-conference linebacker in football.

“Ever since I was young, I always wanted to be a Minnesota Gopher,” Nelson said. “I’m really glad I ended up here. Minnesota has a great heavyweight tradition and I’m trying to continue it.”

Nelson beat 2011 champion Zach Rey of Lehigh 4-1 in the 2012 NCAA finals in St. Louis. Nelson, who placed seventh at the 2011 NCAAs as a freshman, is ranked No. 1 nationally this season.

“Most people say there is a target on my back, but for me I’m not going to change my approach,” he said. “I just go out there and try to wrestle every match the same. I just go out and wrestle hard, and continue to try and improve.”

The Gophers not only have a team loaded with talented wrestlers. They have a camaraderie and chemistry on their team that helps make a tough, grueling sport enjoyable to compete in.

“It’s a great feeling to be a part of this team,” Nelson said. “It’s a great group of guys to be around. Watching them go out there and wrestle hard and dominate, that just fires me up to do the same thing. It’s so much fun to be a part of this team.”

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