After a November packed full of dual meets, the Gophers will break from their dual schedule this weekend to compete at the 34th annual Cliff Keen Invitational. Minnesota won last season event, adding the trophy to the 2002 Cliff Keen tournament title in the program’s trophy case.
Just as it was last year, and is most years, the field in Las Vegas is heavy with ranked teams. Across the 40 teams that will be represented on the mats in the Cashman Center this weekend, twelve are currently ranked by InterMat, including the Gophers. Half of the nation’s top 10 teams will be present, as well as nine of the top 20. The field also includes the tournament’s past six team champions – Minnesota, Oklahoma, Cornell and Ohio State, who has won three Cliff Keen titles in the past six seasons.
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Beyond the heavy contingent of recent champions, there are plenty of teams returning that placed well in last year’s event. Minnesota and the four other programs who rounded out the top-five last season (Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Iowa State and Cornell, respectively) are all back this year. Three additional top-ten finishers from last season will return to Vegas this weekend.
It’s possible Gopher wrestlers will get their first head-to-head look of the season at several of their Big Ten competitors on Friday or Saturday. Four other Big Ten teams join Minnesota in this year’s tournament: previously mentioned Ohio State, as well as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Purdue. Neither the Buckeyes nor the Wolverines appear on the Gophers’ conference schedule this season, so matches in Vegas (and later this winter at the Southern Scuffle, in the case of Michigan) will be the only time Minnesota grapplers face off against opponents from those programs prior to the Big Ten Championships in March.
Some Gophers may get a second look at opponents they’ve already wrestled this season. Both Virginia, which Minnesota defeated 19-15 at the Gopher Duals four weeks ago, and Air Force, which fell to the Gophers 22-12 at the Sports Pavilion on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, will be competing in the tournament.
Looking at who will wrestle for the Maroon and Gold this weekend, four Gophers enter the tournament ranked: No. 6 Brett Pfarr (197), No. 9 Tommy Thorn (141), No. 9 Michael Kroells (285) and No. 20 Brandon Kingsley (157). Kingsley’s opening match of the tournament will be his first collegiate match as a ranked wrestler.
With a perfect 11-0 record this season, Pfarr will look to replicate the accomplishments of two Gophers from last season. Several Gophers brought undefeated records to Las Vegas in 2014 and a pair – Chris Dardanes and Dylan Ness – continued their perfect seasons by winning tournament titles at 133 and 157, respectively.
To earn the title, Pfarr will have to improve on a fifth-place finish last year at 184. Kroells will also try to move further up the podium this season after a fourth-place performance last year.
Six Gophers will make their Cliff Keen debut on Friday: Thorn, Kingsley, Skyler Petry (125), Brandon Krone (165), Jordon Rother (174) and Chris Pfarr (184). Both Sam Brancale (133) and Jake Short (149) wrestled but did not place last season. Brancale competed at 125 pounds last December.
The first matches of this year’s Cliff Keen Invitational are scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Central on Friday morning. By the end of the day Friday, championship bracket quarterfinals will be complete. Action resumes Saturday at 11 a.m. Central with Round of 12 wrestleback matches, followed by the remaining matches for all 10 tournament brackets. Championship and third-place bouts are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Central that evening.
Both days of the Cliff Keen Invitational will be streamed live on Flowrestling.org. Viewing the livestream requires a FloPRO account. An alternative to keep tabs on Minnesota’s results throughout the tournament is to follow Gopher Wrestling on Twitter, which will provide live, mat-side updates from every Gopher match.
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