It’s March and Championship season is is in full swing. The Minnesota Golden Gophers will be represented in two NCAA Championships this weekend, and it’s neither of the basketball tournaments or the women’s hockey tournament. Minnesota will have three representatives at the NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championship and nine representatives at the NCAA Wrestling Championships. Both events will have Gophers in action beginning on Thursday, and by the end of the weekend it’s very possible the Gophers could have a pair of new national champions.
The nine Gophers at the NCAA wrestling championships being action Thursday morning in Session 1. The event is taking place at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis. The nine Gophers competing at the NCAA’s is the largest number since 2017. Only one current Gopher has any NCAA Championships experience, and that is the Gopher many think has a very good chance to be the next Minnesota national champion.
Gable Steveson returns to the national championships after a third place finish in 2019 as a freshman. He was the #1 seed a year ago before the event was cancelled due to COVID, and is the #1 seed once again this year having not lost a match in 2020 or 2021. In fact he has only lost two matches in his entire career, both to Penn State’s Anthony Cassar in the Big ten Championships and NCAA semifinals in 2019.
Steveson may see lots of familiar athletes in his path to a National Championship. If the right wrestlers win their matches Gable may get to run through the heavyweights from Illinois in the Round of 16, Penn State in the quarterfinals, Iowa in the semifinals, and a rematch against Michigan’s Mason Parris in the finals. Steveson beat Parris 12-4 to win the Big Ten Championships two weeks ago. He will start his competition with the winner of the #33/#34 seed wrestle-in match between Taye Ghadali of Campbell and Andrew Gunning of North Carolina.
If Steveson can win a NCAA title he would be the first Gopher to win an individual championship since heavyweight Tony Nelson won back to back in 2012 and 2013. He would join great names such as Nelson, Cole Konrad, Brock Lesner, Verne Gagne, and Leonard Levy as the Minnesota heavyweights to win a national title.
Of the eight other Gophers to make the NCAA’s, only one has a single digit seed in #6 Brayton Lee at 157 pounds. He will face Connor Brady of Virgina Tech in his first match Thursday.
The Gophers other seven wrestlers and their seed are:
#15 Patrick McKee—125 lbs
#23 Boo Dryden—133 lbs
#28 Marcos Polanco-141 lbs
#14 Michael Blockhus-149 lbs
#24 Andrew Sparks—165 lbs
#24 Jake Allar—174 lbs
#17 Owen Webster—184 lbs
Only at 157 pounds does Minnesota not have a wrestler in the competition.
The Round of 32 matches will kick off at 10AM on ESPNU. The Round of 16 and the first round of wrestlebacks will be Thursday night beginning at 5PM on ESPN2. The Quarterfinals and the second and third round of wrestle backs take place Friday morning beginning at 10 AM on ESPN U, the semifinals and fourth and five rounds of wrestlebacks will be Friday night beginning at 7 PM on ESPN. Saturday morning will be the 7th, 5th and 3rd place matches kicking off at 10 AM on ESPN 2, and the National Championship matches will begin at 6PM Saturday night on ESPN.
Women’s Swimming and Diving:
A trio of Gophers advanced to the NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina this weekend. The Gophers will have a pair of divers and one swimmer trying to bring back individual glory to Minneapolis.
The Gophers best chance at a NCAA title will come from senior diver Sarah Bacon. She is going for the unprecedented three-peat as she was the 2018 and 2019 NCAA Champion on the one-meter springboard. She was going to miss the 2020 championships regardless as she took the year off to try and earn a US Olympic team spot, but has returned in 2021 and is back in position to take how her third title. Bacon cruised through the competition at the NCAA Zone D Qualifier last weekend where her closest competitor was 97 points behind. She also will compete in the 3-meter springboard event where she also won the Zone D qualifier, this time by only 35 points.
Joining her on the one-meter board will be freshman Megan Phillip. She finished 8th in the Zone D qualifier, just making into the National Championships.
In the pool, Minnesota’s lone swimming qualifier is freshman Megan VanBerkom. She earned her spots at the NCAA meet with a seventh place finish in the 400 IM (4:13.19) at the Big Ten Championships which was fast enough to make the NCAA “A” cut. Since she also has a NCAA “B” cut time in the 200 fly, and she will already be at the championships, she will be allowed to compete in both races.
The action for the Gophers gets underway on Thursday as the Gopher divers take to the one-meter springboard event. Friday will be the three-meter springboard event and the 400 individual medley competition, and Saturday will be the 200 fly.
Prelims begin at 9 AM each day, and the finals begin at 5PM. All the action will be streamed live on ESPN3.
Good luck to all the Gophers and hopefully be Saturday night Minnesota will have two more NCAA Champions!