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NCAA CHAMPIONSHIPS NOTEBOOK: Loaded senior class expected to make mark internationally



AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - One-by-one, they filed into the interview room at The Palace and took their spots at the podium early Wednesday afternoon.

A quick glance revealed a star-studded group that is hoping to haul home their share of hardware at the NCAA Championships this weekend.

Not only are they some of the best college wrestlers in the country.

They already are some of the best international prospects in the United States. And threats to make U.S. World and Olympic Teams for the next handful of years and beyond.

Three of the wrestlers - Minnesota's Cole Konrad (heavyweight), Michigan State's Nick Simmons (133) and Oklahoma's Sam Hazewinkel (125) - already have made U.S. National Teams at the Senior level in freestyle or Greco-Roman.

Missouri's Ben Askren (174) won a Senior-level title at the 2005 Pan American Championships and placed fifth at the 2005 U.S. World Team Trials. Oklahoma State's Johny Hendricks (165) was a Junior Nationals champion who is considered a top prospect in freestyle.

Hendricks is a two-time NCAA champion, Askren and Konrad are returning NCAA champions, and Hazewinkel and Simmons are past All-Americans. No doubt, this is one of the best senior classes in recent memory at the NCAA Championships. All five wrestlers are seeded No. 1. Askren has won 81 straight matches, Konrad 71 in a row and Hendricks hasn't lost the last 52 times he's stepped on the mat.

"There are some great wrestlers up here and definitely some guys who could be on the Olympic Team next year or in 2012," said Konrad, a returning NCAA champion who placed third at the U.S. World Team Trials at 264.5 pounds in 2005. "It's kind of cool, because we all know each other pretty well. After this season, we'll continue to wrestle together and that's exciting. We're all looking forward to wrestling internationally."

Michigan junior All-American Josh Churella, seeded third at 149, joined the other athletes on the podium Wednesday.

Hazewinkel, third in the NCAA tournament the past three years, has placed second at the U.S. World Team Trials in Greco-Roman wrestling the past two years. He competes internationally at 55 kg/121 pounds. Hazewinkel said it was a "special group of guys" sitting at the podium on Wednesday.

"We have a real tough group of seniors this year," Hazewinkel said. "We're all going to wrestle freestyle or Greco, and we hope to go on to bigger and better things after we finish college. We all have pretty high goals."

Hendricks is a three-time All-American.

"This senior class is very tough," Hendricks said. "This group works extremely hard and I think that's the biggest reason that this group has maybe separated itself from some other senior classes. I know Cole Konrad and Ben Askren and Sam Hazewinkel and Nick Simmons, all those guys put in the time and the effort to be the best."

Hendricks said he's planning on taking a break after the NCAAs before competing in freestyle at the Senior level.

Askren, the reigning Hodge Trophy winner as the top collegiate wrestler, said he was impressed with the guys who were sitting next to him Wednesday.

"It's a pretty rough and tumble type of group," Askren said. "I could see a bunch of Olympians come from this group. We'll just have to wait and see."

Askren plans to jump right in and compete in freestyle at the U.S. Nationals on April 6-7 in Las Vegas. He has said he plans to compete at 74 kg/163 pounds.

"I would really like to take some time off before I start training for the U.S. Open, but there is no time so I'm going to train straight through," Askren said. "I may take a couple weeks off after the U.S. Open, and then start training for the (U.S. World Team) Trials."

Simmons placed third at the 2005 U.S. World Team Trials in freestyle at 55 kg/121 pounds.

Hazewinkel comes to defense of Hendricks

It's not often that a competitor for the Oklahoma Sooners comes to the defense of an athlete for the rival Oklahoma State Cowboys.

But OU's Hazewinkel didn't hesitate when asked if OSU's Hendricks receives an unfair shake from wrestling fans.

Hendricks has become college wrestling's villain, in large part after he pulled out a pair of controversial wins in the semifinals and finals of the 2006 NCAA meet. Hendricks won his second national title in a disputed win over Michigan's Ryan Churella in Oklahoma City.

Churella cradled and nearly pinned Hendricks at the end of the second period. Many fans thought it should have been ruled a fall before time ran out. Hendricks was booed while celebrating his win in an emotional display.

"Johny's a great guy," Hazewinkel said. "He adds something to the sport with his personality. He's the greatest guy in the world off the mat - a lot of people don't know him. A lot of people out there hate him, and that's unfortunate, but to his credit he handles everything really well and doesn't seem to let it bother him."

The Michigan campus in Ann Arbor is just down the road from The Palace and Hendricks knows what kind of reception he likely will receive when he steps on the mat for the first time Thursday.

"Bad - it will be bad," Hendricks said. "It's something I've had to live with. I think last year I had every fan in the stands cheering or booing when I wrestled.

"I don't understand why people boo me and would do that to a wrestler who is trying to be entertaining and showing some emotion out there. I just have to forgive people. I was really upset with some of the stuff on TheMat.com message boards and was planning to prove a point to people who have criticized me. Then I went to church and my preacher started talking about forgiveness and to forgive those who hate you and talk bad about you. And you know what, I forgive them."

Hendricks could meet another Michigan wrestler in the finals. Hendricks is seeded No. 1 and Michigan's Eric Tannenbaum is No. 3 at 165.

Wisconsin natives Konrad, Askren lighten the mood before NCAAs

When Konrad was late arriving to Wednesday's press conference, NCAA officials knew exactly where the big fella was. All thanks to modern technology.

Askren tracked Konrad down on his cell phone and informed NCAA officials Konrad would be a few minutes late.

Askren, from Hartland, Wis., also had a quick reply when asked what makes Konrad, from Freedom, Wis., so successful on the mat.

"Cole's strength is his deceptive athletic ability - I'm not even joking," Askren said, as his friend Konrad stood directly behind him shortly after the press conference. "You should see Cole play dodgeball. I've seen him catch three dodgeballs at one time, no joke.

"He also works very hard and steps beyond the call of duty. Cole isn't training for an NCAA title, he's training for a World Championship."

Konrad and Askren have developed a close relationship.

"We talk quite a bit - probably about once a week or every other week," Konrad said. "Other than just being a dominating wrestler, he's quite the character and has a real outgoing personality. He doesn't care what he says and makes all these predictions, but he backs those up because he is so confident in his skills."

The laid-back Konrad said he won't be making any of the same predictions that Askren has made even though he is just as dominant on the mat.

"I think if I ran my mouth like that my dad would probably still throw me over his knee," Konrad said. "That's not my style. I would rather just do my talking with my performance when I step on the mat."

Konrad's Minnesota team is ranked No. 1 and heavily favored to win the team title. Askren's Missouri team was ranked No. 1 part of the season, and is now No. 3.

"I pull for Cole only when it's not going to hurt my team," Askren said. "It's kind of easier to pull for Cole in this tournament because it's going to be hard for anybody to challenge him. People will be hard-pressed to challenge him. He's been pretty much dominating everybody he wrestles."

Konrad won the 2005 Pan American Championships, beating World champion Alexis Rodriguez of Cuba. Konrad was a bronze medalist at the 2006 World University Games.

Tickets still remain for event

Approximately 2,000 tickets remain for the NCAA Championships.

The Palace will seat approximately 17,500 fans for the first five sessions with around 18,000 seats available for Saturday night's finals.

Wrestlers were interviewed as a group on the podium to start the press conference, before they came down on the floor to talk with small groups of reporters on Wednesday

Complete student-athlete transcripts from NCAA Championships Press Conference
Untitled Document
   
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