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|Wide-open race for team title expected at National Duals|
By Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
National Duals Special Section
It would be difficult to top the dramatic finish from the 2006 National Duals when Cole Konrad pinned two-time NCAA champion Steve Mocco of Oklahoma State to give Minnesota the title.
But with a balanced field, and no overwhelming favorite, the 2007 National Duals likely will feature its share of compelling storylines and drama on Saturday and Sunday at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
So just who are the favorites?
You start with top-ranked Missouri, led by their top-ranked brother tandem of Ben (174 pounds) and Max Askren (197).
Next you have No. 2 Minnesota and their national championship tandem of Dustin Schlatter (149) and Cole Konrad (285).
And you can't forget about four-time reigning NCAA tournament champion Oklahoma State, led by two-time national champion Johny Hendricks (165).
"There are lot of teams right in there with a chance to win this," Minnesota coach J Robinson said. "It will be interesting. A lot of it depends on injuries and who gets on a roll and has a good weekend."
You also can't overlook No. 5 Iowa and No. 6 Iowa State, teams wrestling virtually in their own backyard. Iowa State finished ahead of Iowa at the Midlands Championships after the Hawkeyes beat the Cyclones in an early December dual meet.
The National Duals usually offers its fair share of surprises. The surprise team last year was Nebraska, which wasn't seeded in the top eight but upset Iowa and Michigan in the first two rounds en route to finishing third.
"Just looking at the pairings after they came out, every round will be unbelievable," Missouri coach Brian Smith said. "We have a very tough match first round against Penn and then you see Minnesota facing Cornell right away. It's going to be a great event with some great duals, that's for sure. We're looking forward to it."
You also have No. 3 Hofstra, a team that beat Minnesota early in the year. Those teams could meet again in the semifinals. Seventh-ranked Oklahoma and No. 8 Northwestern also may be in the mix. Northwestern could meet Missouri in what likely would be a hard-fought quarterfinal dual.
"It's up for grabs," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "A lot of teams are trying to find themselves right now."
All college divisions will be together under one roof again this weekend as the National Duals also will crown champions in Division II, Division III, NAIA and Junior College. Nebraska-Omaha is the defending champion in Division II while Wartburg (Division III), Dana (NAIA) and Labette (Junior College) will try to repeat the titles they won in 2006.
Tournaments also will be held for the National Collegiate Wrestling Association (club programs) and women's college freestyle teams.
Minnesota likely would be the favorite if not for injuries. All-American Mack Reiter (133) is still out with a knee injury, but may be back next month. Robinson said national qualifier C.P. Schlatter (157) is questionable for this weekend after being out with an injury.
The Gophers will still put a strong lineup on the mat with Dustin Schlatter, Konrad and NCAA runner-up Roger Kish (184) leading the way.
Dustin Schlatter, who won a national title as a true freshman, is unbeaten in his sophomore season at 149.
"Dustin's obviously very gifted athletically - he's quick and he has great balance," Robinson said. "Mentally, he just keeps everything in perspective and stays real focused. He doesn't let things bother him."
Barring an upset, No. 4 Oklahoma State and No. 5 Iowa would meet in the quarterfinals on Saturday. Iowa wrestles at Oklahoma State in a dual on Jan. 19.
"This is a big event," Brands said. "This is a national championship. It's obviously not as big as the NCAA tournament, but it's still a very important event."
Ben Askren, the reigning Hodge Trophy winner as the top collegiate wrestler, has now won his last 68 matches at 174. The senior is 23-0 this season and hasn't lost since falling to Oklahoma State's Chris Pendleton in the 2005 NCAA finals. Askren pinned all five opponents he faced at the Southern Scuffle in the first period.
"Ben has improved every year he's been here," Brian Smith said. "He's taken it up to another level this year. What impresses me is he really wants the team to win the national title and he's doing whatever he can to make it happen. He's constantly working out and trying to get better. He's our leader and sets a great example for the rest of our team."
Max Askren, a freshman, is 18-0 this season.
"Max had a great first semester," Smith said. "He beat a couple All-Americans last year during his redshirt season and he's beaten five or six guys ranked in the top 10 already this year. He's obviously off to a great start. He's worked extremely hard and it's paying off for him right now."
Missouri edged Minnesota in the Southern Scuffle on Dec. 30 as both teams were missing starters because of injury. Smith said All-Americans Matt Pell (165) and Tyler McCormick (133) are expected to be back in the lineup this weekend after missing the Southern Scuffle with minor injuries.
"One of the big keys this weekend will be who is healthy," Smith said. "A lot of teams are pretty beat up right now. We've had a few injuries, just like every other team. It's a tough sport and a long season."
Being the top-ranked team has put Missouri in the national spotlight this season. The Tigers have been featured in USA Today and in numerous national wrestling publications and Web sites.
"Our guys have handled everything really well," Smith said. "Our team is really hungry to win a national title. Our guys believe that and will continue to believe that, no matter what happens this weekend at the National Duals. They've consistently wrestling well all year and they're stayed real focused."
In addition to Hendricks, Oklahoma State has proven wrestlers in All-Americans Coleman Scott (125) and Nathan Morgan (133), along with returning national qualifier Brandon Mason (174). Morgan and Scott, both juniors, are each ranked third nationally.
Brands said he is looking for more consistency out of his team. Iowa is led by junior Mark Perry (165), a two-time All-American and past NCAA runner-up.
"We need to do a better job based on our results at the Midlands," Brands said. "We took a step backwards at the Midlands and we need to assert ourselves again. We've made some progress in the practice room. I know we have the guns and I know we have the firepower to be right where we want to be."
Iowa State also has come on recently after winning the Midlands Championships under first-year coach Cael Sanderson. Senior twins Trent (157) and Travis Paulson (165) are both ranked second nationally. The Cyclones start six freshmen.
"Our young guys are really improving and making progress," Travis Paulson said. "These guys aren't like your typical freshmen. They work their butts off and they're technically sound."
First-round and quarterfinal duals are set for Saturday with the semifinals and finals on Sunday at the UNI-Dome.
NATIONAL DUALS, FIRST-ROUND MATCHUPS
JAN. 13, UNI-DOME, CEDAR FALLS, IOWA
9 A.M. DUALS
No. 1 Missouri vs. Penn
No. 8 Northwestern vs. West Virginia
No. 5 Iowa vs. UC-Davis
No. 4 Oklahoma State vs. Northern Iowa
11 A.M. DUALS
No. 3 Hofstra vs. Nebraska
No. 6 Iowa State vs. Michigan
No. 7 Oklahoma vs. Central Michigan
No. 2 Minnesota vs. Cornell