Powering to the top

Isanti’s Tony Nelson wins NCAA national wrestling championship for Gophers

Moving blocks of granite at each step, Isanti-native Tony Nelson worked his way through the NCAA Div. I wrestling brackets to win the national championship last weekend in St. Louis. Nelson, a red-shirt sophomore for the University of Minnesota, capped off the tourney with a 4-1 decision at heavyweight over defending-champ Zachery Rey of Lehigh Saturday night.

“This is something I worked for my whole life, especially after I decided to go to the U for wrestling. When I was young, a national college championship was always a goal in the back of my mind,” said Nelson via a phone interview in between classes on Monday. “It’s definitely a feeling of accomplishment.”

Tony Nelson flexes his form after winning the 285 lb. NCAA D-I title in St. Louis March 17. Photos courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletic Communications

Facing Rey in the finals in front of 18,000-some fans at Scott Trade Center, Nelson was giving up 30 lbs. to the defending champ. The match was tied at 1-1 after both wrestlers got their escape, then with seven seconds left in regulation, Nelson shot in for a takedown and finished off Rey, getting an additional point in the end for his riding-time advantage.

“Rey is really powerful, but he also has really good speed for his size,” said Nelson who had never faced the Mountain Hawk before, a New Jersey native.

“That was the ultimate experience in wrestling. We are very proud of Tony and very happy for him,” said his father, Todd Nelson, who made the trip to St. Louis with wife, Sandi, and their family, taking in the city’s huge St. Patrick’s Day Parade prior to the finals. “Watching Tony and his teammates was a great time, and there was a really large Minnesota following down there.”


The route through the brackets

Nelson, the No. 2 seed, opened the NCAAs with an 8-0 major over Binghamton’s Nick Gwiazdowski who went on to place 8th at heavyweight. Next was a rematch with Central Michigan’s Peter Sturgeon– a grappler who handed Tony one of his two losses this season back in December. Nelson blanked him 6-0 this time.

Tony Nelson at the championship press conference following his 4-1 defeat of defending-champ Zachery Rey of Lehigh.

Reaching the 285 quarterfinals, Nelson next faced Northwestern’s Michael McMullan who he just beat by one point two weeks back in the Big 10 tourney.

“I got my escape to start the second period to go up 1-0. Then we were in a bit of scramble where I had one of his legs and was trying to pull him back to the center,” replayed Nelson. “He bent his head toward his knees, and I was able to lock up a cradle on him and put him to his back for a pin.”

Waiting in the semifinals was Oregon State’s Clayton Jack, the No. 3 seed. Jack got a third-period reverse to lead the match 2-1 before Nelson fought back for an escape to tie the match at 2-2. Then with 25 seconds left during another scramble, Nelson shot for a takedown for the 4-2 edge before cutting Jack and holding him off the final ticks. (McMullan went on to beat Jack 10-5 in the 3rd-place match).

“Tony is a little bigger and stronger this season– adding 10 lbs since taking 7th at nationals last year. He is a very smart heavyweight wrestler, which makes a huge difference when the competition is so close,” analyzed C-I Coach Neil Jennissen, who also journeyed to St. Louis with wife, Amy, to watch his former State champ. “And a lot of people don’t know it, but he is incredibly athletic. How many athletes do you know that can win a national wrestling championship, slam-dunk a basketball, shoot in the high 30s or low 40s in golf, hit home runs and play pretty much any position in football? Plus, his conditioning and endurance has always been supreme.”

“It was truly amazing to watch him at the tourney,” continued Jennissen. “His ability to scramble in matches was a big difference-maker. Both Rey and Jack got in on him, but Tony fought them off. It will be interesting to see what he can do next year.”

Nelson joins fellow CIHS grad Luke Becker as a NCAA champ for the Gophers. Becker is currently an assistant wrestling coach at the U and will be inducted into the MN Wrestling Hall of Fame this April.

• The Gophers finished 2nd in the team standings to Big 10-counterpart Penn State who boasted three undefeated champions (Frank Molinaro at 149, David Taylor at 165 and Edward Ruth at 174). Also placing for the U of M were Dylan Ness (2nd at 149), Zach Sanders (3rd at 125), Chris Dardannes (4th at 133), Sonny Yohn (5th at 197), Kevin Steinhaus (5th at 184) and Logan Storley (6th at 174). Iowa was 3rd in the team standings, and four more Big 10 teams placed in the top-11: Ohio State 5th, Illinois 7th, Northwestern 9th and Michigan 11th.

Next year, the NCAAs will be hosted in Des Moines, IA. Nelson is checking into the possibility of trying out in April for this summer’s U.S. Olympic wrestling squad.