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BIG TEN FIRST SESSION REPORT - Minnesota leads, as its all about upsets and bonus points



The first session of Big Ten Wrestling Championships has completed, and the anticipated battle of top college teams has already heated up. There is a big crowd for the opening session, not quite capacity, but certainly fitting for an event of this magnitude. McGaw Hall, which also hosts the Midlands, is intimate enough to give the event that intense feeling of big-time college wrestling. From the floor, where the media is located, the gym has a feeling of being in "the pit," which is perfect for wreestling. The first session is all about gaining bonus points and avoiding upsets. In a high quality tournament, you will find bonus points are hard to get, and upsets can occur. A pair of top seeds wrestled back-to-back on Mat 2 early on. Doug Schwab of Iowa had to bang hard to score a 22-11 major decision over Josh Ballard of Northwestern in the first round at 141 pounds. Schwab played the let-him-up, then take-him-down game with skill, trying to get that 15-point margin for the technical fall. However, a gritty Ballard scored a takedown in the third period to hold off the additional bonus points. Immediately after, Adam Tirapelle of Illinois, seeded No. 1 at 149 pounds, quickly took down and cradled Mark Trinitapoli of Wisconsin, scoring a first-period fall in 33 seconds. Those bonus points could make the difference in the long-run in the final team standings, as Illinois is one of the top few squads in the field. Defending national champion Donny Pritzlaff of Wisconsin, another top seed, also scored a first-round pin over Ryan Kane of Northwestern at 165 pounds. For a team like the Badgers, perhaps not in the race for the team title, their stars will have to score as many points as possible, while other team members need to beat athletes who have higher seeds. It was a different experience for top seed Tommy Rowlands of Ohio State, who was competing in his first Big Ten Championships match, even though he is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation at 285 pounds. He dominated from the feet on the way to a 16-8 major decision over Justin Staebler of Wisconsin. Rowlands wrestles like a middleweight, with speed and a full arsenal of techniques, and he is still growing into the heavyweight class. Rowlands says he weighed 226 pounds at this morning's weigh-in, which means he gives up pounds every match. The first seed fell at 125 pounds, when Ohio State's unseeded Kore Sharpley edged No. 8 seed Tony Black of Wisconsin, 4-3. This is certainly not a huge upset, but the name of the game, according to almost every coach, is matching or beating your seed. This really will make sense in the consolation bracket, where Black will have his back against the wall, and will not be able to lose if he wants to make the NCAA Tournament. Gray Maynard of Michigan State, seeded No. 3 at 157 pounds, had to score a takedown in sudden victory overtime to beat P.J. Dowling of Wisconsin in his first match, 10-8. This could have been an upset, but now that Maynard has advanced, he will have the chance in following matches to wrestle better and pick up the intensity. Michigan led the tournament after the first round with 10 points, followed by Ohio State and Illinois with 8. Indiana had 6.5 points, and Minnesota was next with 4.5 points, followed by Iowa with 4. Whether or not this means much in the overall picture will be played out soon. Favorites Minnesota and Iowa did not lose any of their key athletes to upset, but did not have a chance to tack on many bonus points either. The quarterfinals are also held in the first session, and seeded wrestlers were meeting in almost every bout. The key to tournament success, according to all coaches, is remembering the Al Davis saying which goes "Just win, baby." At 125 pounds, No. 5 A.J. Grant of Michigan defeated No. 4 Jason Silverstein of Purdue, 6-0. This keeps Grant's title hopes alive, and also scores important points for the Wolverines. Grant has a chance to beat his seed, and with an upset of top-ranked Jody Strittmatter of Iowa in the semifinals, he will be a finalist. The No. 4 vs. No. 5 pairing is a big deal in most weight classes, and can change the complexion of the meet. The first big upset of a favored athlete came at 133 pounds, when No. 6 Kevin Black of Wisconsin knocked off No. 3 Brett Lawrence of Minnesota, 10-8. Coach J Robinson said before the meet that his team's balance was a key to victory, and this loss puts a nick in the team's armor. No. 8 Clark Forward of Michigan gave Iowa fans a scare, giving No. 1 Mark Schwab all he could handle at 141 pounds. The bout was tied 2-2 late, but Schwab scored a takedown with just seconds left for a 4-2 win. The team race balance stayed the same, at least this time. Iowa didn't escape unscathed, as No. 5 Mike Kulczycki of Michigan stopped No. 4 Mike Zadick, 8-5 at 149 pounds. Although a lower seed, Kulczycki has now beaten Zadick three of four times in their career. Should Kulczycki lose next round, there's even a chance these guys could meet again later in this tournament. That's the thing about this tournament; most of these athletes have already met a number of times in the past, but have to find a new way to win when it counts. Halfway through the quarterfinals, the team race already began to shape up. Minnesota was in first, followed by Iowa a few points away. The predictions that it would be a two-horse race with the Gophers and Hawkeyes are still a bit premature, but the big boys have already taken a step up. Ohio State's hopes were bolstered when No. 6 Ryan Hieber upset No. 3 Ryan Lange of Purdue 7-5 at 174 pounds. The Buckeyes, a young team with some refreshing talent, came to give a message to the nation that their strong season will continue into the post-season. Minnesota won a key bout at 184, when No. 3 Damion Hahn scored duck under takedown with about 20 seconds to go, for a 4-2 win over No. 6 Jessman Smith of Iowa. Every match is big when these two teams wrestle, and an upset by Smith would have been huge. Hahn was not pleased with his performance afterwards, but was told by a coach that it was OK because he had won. Olympic bronze medalist Garrett Lowney, the Gopher heavyweight, is also in his first Big Ten Championships. Undefeated and seeded No. 2, he moved into the semifinals with a solid win over Bob Jones of Penn State. It's hard to imagine that this event could get him nervous, after tossing a four-time World Champion from Russia for a supplay on the Olympic mats in Sydney, but as a freshman, he still has something to prove on the college level. After the quarterfinals, Minnesota leads the team race with 84.5 points. Illinois is second with 62.5, followed by Michigan with 52 and Iowa with 50. Ohio State is fifth with 40. The rest of the field goes Indiana 28.5, Michigan State 28, Wisconsin 27, Purdue 26, Penn State 10 and Northwestern 1. The ebb and flow of this event is quite unique, as the intensity goes up and down as athletes go for upsets or bonus points. Already, the stage has been set for a great weekend.
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