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Big Ten Wrestling Championships should be wild and wooly from the opening whistle



The 87th annual Big Ten Wrestling Championships will be held at Northwestern Univ., March 3-4. This eleven team tournament is considered by many the strongest conference in Div. I wrestling, and may be the most important event in determining what team and athletes will be favored at this year's NCAA Championships. The action will be wild and wooly from the opening whistle. Consider this. Ten of the 11 teams finished the year ranked in the top 25 in the final National Wrestling Coaches Association/TheMat.com Div. I College Wrestling Poll. The only team out of the national rankings is host Northwestern. Leading the poll is No. 1 Minnesota, followed by No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Iowa. Also in the Top 10 are No. 7 Illinois and No. 8 Ohio State. Rounding out the ranked teams are No. 13 Michigan State, No. 20 Indiana, No. 23 Wisconsin, No. 24 Purdue and No. 25 Penn State. These rankings are based mostly on dual meets, as well as major in-season tournaments. The dynamics of the tournament format will mix things up, as teams with strong individuals will be able to claim valuable points in the standings. It's a sure bet that the final dual meet standings will not match the final team scoring in this spectacular event. It's not just the team race that makes this such a compelling weekend. Each and every weight class is chock full of nationally ranked wrestlers, all aiming for the NCAA Div. I Nationals in two weeks. All 10 weight classes have at least five wrestlers ranked in the top 20 in the nation in the latest Amateur Wrestling News rankings. Five of the weight classes have the No. 1 ranked wrestler in the entire nation, meaning half of the top-ranked stars will be on display in one tournament. The Big Ten is allocated 72 qualifiers for the 2001 NCAA Championships. The top seven placewinners in each weight class will automatically advance to the national tournament. Big Ten coaches will select an additional two wild card qualifiers after the conclusion of the meet. Some years, the big news comes from which "big-name" athletes don't even qualify for the NCAA's because of the intensity of this meet. "The Big Ten Conference is the best in the country," said Wisconsin head coach Barry Davis. "It is sometimes as tough or tougher than the national tournament." Iowa is the defending Big Ten Champions, as the the Hawkeyes claimed the 2000 team title with 140.5 points to Minnesota's 132.5 points. Illinois was next with 97.50 points, followed by Michigan State at 87.50 points and Michigan with 73 points. The year before, Minnesota snapped Iowa's 25-year conference title win streak, said to be the longest such streak for any school in any sport. Most pundits expect these two teams to be the major players in this year's edition of the championships. The top-ranked Golden Gopher wrestling team finished the 2000-01 dual meet schedule with a 19-1 overall record and an 8-0 mark in the Big Ten. Among the triumphs were Iowa a pair of wins over Iowa, including a 20-17 victory at the National Duals and a razor-tight 17-16 win at Iowa City in their final dual meet of the year. Again, these were dual meets, and Minnesota's overall depth and ability to win key bouts made the difference against Iowa at the time. In a tournament, with 11 teams full of national-ranked stars, each and every individual's personal performance becomes even more important. All 10 of Minnesota's wrestlers are ranked in the top 20 of the AWN rankings, with Olympic bronze medalist Garrett Lowney holding the highest ranking at No. 2 at heavyweight. Every Gopher wrestler will be expected to add points to the team total. The Gophers are only top-ranked in the Big Ten in one weight class, junior Owen Elzen at 197 pounds. To be team champions, Minnesota will need to be a team, not a collection of individuals. Iowa, on the other hand, is led by a group of very talented stars, with a few weight classes not expected to place well in the tournament. Three Hawkeyes hold No. 1 national rankings, Eric Juergens at 133 pounds, Doug Schwab at 141 pounds and T.J. Williams at 157 pounds. Next in line is Jody Strittmatter at 118 pounds, ranked No. 2 in the nation. The Big Four will have to rack up big points for the Hawks, and the other team members will need to reach or better their seeds for Iowa to defend its title. The wildcard in the race is Michigan, which is actually ranked higher than Iowa in the NWCA/TheMat.com rankings at No. 3, while the Hawks are No. 4. Michigan lost a close match to Iowa in the National Duals, but returned with a victory in Ann Arbor late in the season. Michigan will need to put athletes in the finals, and get some of their athletes wrestling better than their seeds, to challenge for a top two finish. The rest of the field is intriguing. Illinois is a team with balance, led by 2000 NCAA runner-up Adam Tirapelle. Ohio State is the surprise team of the conference, led by freshman heavyweight star Tommy Rowlands. Michigan State has been very impressive at times, but needs a consistent performance all weekend. Indiana, Wisconsin, Purdue and Penn State are bunched together in the dual rankings, and their key will be the performance of a few star individuals. Host Northwestern has shown improvement in recent meets, and could surprise some people with a good performance at home. The first six weight classes feature the returning Big Ten champion: Jody Strittmatter of Iowa (125), Eric Juergens of Iowa (133), Doug Schwab of Iowa (141). Adam Tirapelle of Illinois (149), T.J. Williams of Iowa (157) and Don Pritzlaff ofWisconsin (165). All six will be favored to win again. However, this is the Big Ten's, after all, and nothing ever goes according to predictions. 125 pounds - This weight features nine nationally ranked wrestlers, promising tremendous action from the early rounds. Iowa's Jody Strittmatter is ranked No. 2 in the nation, and Minnesota's Leroy Vega is ranked No. 3. Strittmatter has won five straight against Vega, but in a key match in the February dual meet, Vega upset Strittmatter on Iowa's home mats. Both will have to be sharp just to make the finals. Other nationally ranked participants are No. 8. Jason Silverstein of Purdue; No. 10. A.J. Grant of Michigan; No. 11. Greg Schaeffer of Indiana; No. 13 Chris Williams of Michigan State; No. 14 Ryan Escobar of Illinois; No. 17. Kore Sharpley of Ohio State and No. 19 Tony Black of Wisconsin. This weight class alone explains why the Big Ten Tournament is so tough from the opening whistle. 133 pounds - NCAA champion and returning conference champion Eric Juergens of Iowa is a strong favorite, but will need to beware of No. 4 nationally ranked Pat McNamara of Michigan State and No. 5. nationally ranked Brett Lawrence of Minnesota. McNamara has tremendous talent, and has shown the ability to beat top stars throughout his career. Others with national rankings in this group include No. 8. Evan Robinson of Purdue, No. 15 Foley Dowd of Michigan, No. 16. Kevin Black of Wisconsin and No. 20 Marat Tomaev of Penn State. 141 pounds - Doug Schwab of Iowa, a former NCAA champion, holds the No. 1 national ranking and is favored to repeat as Big Ten champion. Chad Erikson of Minnesota, ranked No. 7 by Amateur Wrestling News, could be his top challenger. Other in AWN's national rankings coming into the meet are No. 13 Mike Castillo of Illinois, No. 14 Robert Sessley of Ohio State, No. 15 Grant Hoerr of Wisconsin, No. 16 Clark Forward of Michigan and No. 17 Mike Castillo of Michigan State. Penn State's Nate Parker is also talented. The quarterfinals and semifinals at this weight class should be especially exciting. 149 pounds - Returning conference champion Adam Tirapelle of Illinois, a runner-up at last year's NCAA Tournament, enters the meet with the No. 2 national ranking. His top two challengers could be super sophomore Jared Lawrence of Minnesota, who holds the No. 3 Amateur Wrestling News ranking, and No. 7 Mike Zadick of Iowa. Zadick has been intriguing this year, with some ups and downs in his performance, and could be dangerous if he is on his game. Other competitors with natio
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