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Senior Zach Sanders leads the way for top-ranked Minnesota

Minnesota’s Zach Sanders is a three-time All-American. photo.

Senior Zach Sanders is the sparkplug for the Minnesota wrestling team.

He sets the standard on the mat as a three-time All-American and sets an example off the mat as an Academic All-American.

A five-time state champion who won USA Wrestling Cadet and Junior Nationals titles in freestyle wrestling, Sanders is poised to cap his college career by winning an NCAA title next month in St. Louis.

He is ranked second nationally at 125 pounds behind two-time NCAA finalist and 2010 champion Matt McDonough of Iowa.

“Zach sets a great example in so many areas,” Minnesota coach J Robinson said. “He’s a great role model for our program. He’s real respectful and super coachable. He sets a great example with his dedication to the sport. And he’s a real good student who realizes the value of his education. He’s a pretty exceptional kid.”

Sanders is one of the leaders on a strong Minnesota team that just won the NWCA National Duals this past weekend. The Gophers are ranked No. 1 in the NWCA/USA Today Division I Coaches Poll.

Minnesota earned back-to-back wins over perennial powers Iowa and Oklahoma State to win the National Duals.

“It was awesome to win the National Duals,” Sanders said. “I have always had that dream of doing well as a team and winning a national title. We haven’t had very good finishes at the NCAAs since I’ve been here, for the standards we have where we want to win it. It was great to see the team come through at the National Duals.”

Sanders will be seeded No. 2 at next weekend’s Big Ten Championships behind McDonough, a junior who he has never beaten. The battle-tested McDonough is 6-0 in his college career against Sanders, including two wins this season.

“He’s a fun guy to wrestle,” Sanders said. “He pushes the pace and wrestles hard. I’m excited to show everybody that I can beat him. Hopefully, I get that chance. I just have to be ready for whoever is in front of me.”

McDonough beat Sanders 7-4 last weekend at the National Duals.

“Zach is closing the gap and that makes a difference,” Robinson said. “That helps his confidence. The important thing for Zach is to worry about what he can control and focus on that.”

Sanders is known for pushing the pace in his matches as well.

“Zach’s a leader by his total immersion into wrestling,” Robinson said. “The way he wrestles sets the tone in our room and in the first match of our meets. He’s a sparkplug. He leaves everything he has out on the mat when he competes.”

Sanders placed sixth at the 2009 NCAAs as a freshman before finishing fifth in each of the past two seasons. He has a combined 15-7 record in NCAA tournament matches.

“Having that experience helps,” he said. “Not much has changed this year expect I’m a little older and a little wiser. I don’t have a different mindset. I’m still working hard and trying to do my best, and having fun with it. You obviously can’t overlook anybody at NCAAs. Each match is going to be tough and you have to be mentally prepared for everybody you face. I’m excited to see what I can do this year.”

Sanders excels in the classroom, carrying a 3.1 grade-point average. He is scheduled to graduate in May with a degree in business and marketing education.

A top freestyle prospect, Sanders plans to compete internationally in that style of wrestling after he finishes his college career.

“I would like to get into the Olympic Trials this year,” he said. “I will decide after the college season if I am going to try and do that. Right now, I am concentrating on NCAAs.”

Robinson said the freestyle weight class of 55 kg/121 lbs. will be a good fit for Sanders.

“Zach’s a student of the game and he loves wrestling,” Robinson said. “He will spend the time to get better in freestyle. I think he can do very well at that level.”

Sanders, from Wabasha, Minn., committed to the University of Minnesota at the end of his junior year in high school.

“It’s been an awesome experience,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better place to go with the coaches and the training partners we have here at Minnesota. It’s been unbelievable to be a part of this program.”

Sanders is hoping to cap his Gopher career with NCAA team and individual titles. He is 24-2 this season and 126-25 in his college career.

“We are wrestling well,” he said. “There is no doubt we are right up there with the best teams. We just have to make it happen. We are excited to see what we can do at Big Tens and NCAAs.”

So what is going to take for Sanders to reach the top step of the NCAA podium?

“I just have to wrestle to my potential,” he said. “If I wrestle to my potential, I feel that nobody can beat me. I just have to be ready to go and be excited to compete. There are no secrets, I just have to go out and wrestle.”
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