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Michigan's Kellen Russell ready to make run at second straight NCAA title

Michigan’s Kellen Russell won an NCAA title in 2011. Larry Slater photo.

ST. LOUIS – Michigan’s Kellen Russell has no trouble finding his way around the Scottrade Center.

Russell competed in St. Louis the last two times the NCAA Wrestling Championships were held here, in 2008 and 2009.

He came into both tournaments with lofty expectations after winning Big Ten titles as a freshman and sophomore. He reached the quarterfinals as a freshman before falling one win short of placing. He earned All-American honors with a seventh-place finish as a sophomore.

Russell is a much more seasoned and proven wrestler for his third go-around in St. Louis. He redshirted during the 2009-10 season before storming back last season to the capture a NCAA championship in Philadelphia.

Now a senior, Russell is the top seed and favored to repeat as NCAA champion at 141 pounds. The NCAA Championships are scheduled for Thursday through Saturday in St. Louis.

“I remember coming here as a freshman and being nervous, and just thinking about making it to the semifinals and the finals,” Russell said Wednesday during a pre-tournament press conference. “I definitely feel more confident now. You’ve got to step out there and be ready for every match. You can’t look ahead. If I end up with another national championship, that’s great for Michigan and the program. I’m just looking to end on a good note.”

Russell won his fourth Big Ten title earlier this month. He has lost just one match this season. He fell to Ohio State freshman Hunter Stieber in the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational in December, but he has been on a roll since that setback.

“What I learned most from that is I needed to stay focused,” Russell said. “I didn’t wrestle a full seven minutes. The coaches said I didn’t look focused before the match and I didn’t warm up right. It gave me a little kick in the butt to make sure I am doing the right things in the practice room and staying focused before the match.

“I need to make sure I wrestle all the way through the whistle, and not take a minute break here or there. I’ve been doing a better job of wrestling the full seven minutes and scoring points, instead of just holding on.”

Russell is in a tough 141 class that includes two wrestlers he beat in close matches in the semifinals and finals last year.

Russell won a wild overtime match over past NCAA runner-up Montell Marion of Iowa in the 2011 NCAA semifinals before edging Cal Poly’s Boris Novachkov 3-2 in the finals. Marion is the No. 3 seed and Novachkov is the No. 6 seed.

Russell was asked what he remembered about his finals win from last year.

“I was happy, and it was great feeling,” he said. “I wanted to score more points than I did. I didn’t feel completely satisfied. There were some things I could’ve done better. But it was definitely awesome winning that first title.”

Russell opened up in a 7-2 Big Ten finals win over Marion, scoring on single-leg attacks in their bout on March 4.

“That’s kind of been my problem, not shooting enough,” he said. “I have good shots, but I haven’t been shooting enough. In the Big Ten finals, I took more shots and forced my offense more in that match. It was a good confidence-booster going into NCAAs.

“Guys know a majority of my takedowns have come off counter attacks, so they are not going to shoot as much. It’s forced me to work on my offense more and make me take those shots so I don’t have to go into the third period tied or up 1-0.”

Russell has benefited from the additions of top coaches Sean Bormet and Donny Pritzlaff to the Michigan coaching staff this season. Bormet is a past NCAA runner-up who is one of the nation’s top freestyle coaches. Pritzlaff is a two-time NCAA champion and World bronze medalist.

A number of top freestyle wrestlers, including past World silver medalist Jake Herbert and past U.S. Open champion Andrew Howe, are now training in Ann Arbor.

“Sean and Donny are two of the best coaches around,” Russell said. “For them to come in, you could feel the competition level in the room improve. They make everything positive. Plus, we have some top freestyle wrestlers training in our room. I have a ton of top guys to work out with now.”

Russell is considered a top prospect internationally in freestyle wrestling. He is a past Junior Nationals champion in freestyle.

“That’s definitely something I plan on doing,” he said. “We have one of the best situations in the country in Ann Arbor to train in for freestyle.”

Russell said he is excited to compete again in St. Louis, which has hosted six of the last 12 NCAA tournaments.

“It is a great environment and atmosphere to wrestle in,” he said. “The biggest difference from the last two times I was here is I am a lot more experienced and comfortable now.”
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