AAA  Jan. 30, 2015 3:02 AM ET
Gophers wrestling: Heavyweight Michael Kroells has big shoes to fill
Dane Mizutani, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. (TNS)
Tribune Content Agency, LLC
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On the way to Iowa for a match last year against the Hawkeyes, the Gophers wrestling team made a pit stop at a gas station. As wrestlers filed off the bus to grab snacks for the remainder of the trip, a quirky redshirt freshman returned with a half gallon of milk.

"He finished that half gallon before we were even back on the highway," recalled last year's heavyweight, Tony Nelson.

That's not unusual for Michael Kroells.

"He likes his milk," said his roommate, Brett Pfarr, the Gophers' 184-pounder. "He probably goes through four or five gallons in a week."

The few people who knew about Kroells last year were his teammates, and it was more for his milk-drinking prowess than his wrestling. That is no longer the case.

Kroells has stepped in for the graduated Nelson at heavyweight. And if the No. 1-ranked Gophers are to capture their first NCAA championship since 2007, Kroells is going to have to step up. He is 18-8 this season, 3-3 in Big Ten matches.

Kroells faces a big test in Friday night's home match against No. 2 Iowa when he takes on Bobby Telford, the top-ranked heavyweight in the nation.

"He's a really important part of our team if we're going to achieve our goal of a national title," 174-pounder Logan Storley said of Kroells. "It was almost a guaranteed win at heavyweight last year with Tony. So it's important Michael continues to get better."

Like it or not, Kroells has landed in the hot seat.

The Gophers have a long tradition of excellence at heavyweight, and much is expected from the biggest body in the lineup.

Minnesota heavyweights started winning NCAA championships more than 70 years ago, with Leonard Levy doing it in 1941 and Verne Gagne in 1949. But U heavyweights really stepped up starting at the turn of the century, bagging five national titles since then: Brock Lesnar in 2000, Cole Konrad in 2006 and '07 and Nelson in 2012 and '13.

"I was pretty nervous" about taking over the top spot, Kroells said. "I felt like it was a lot of pressure, and I felt like I had to live up to those guys. I've kind of changed my mind-set and looked at it as an opportunity, rather than pressure. ... If I view it as an opportunity, that gives me motivation to kind of live up to those kinds of legends."

Growing up in Belle Plaine, Minn., Kroells never imagined he would be following in the footsteps of legends. He didn't even like wrestling the first time he put on a singlet.

"A majority of it was because I was a young kid and it was hard," he said. "It was a little much at times to have to stay that focused for that long."

Kroells developed a passion for the sport. He said a turning point came during his freshman year at Scott West High School when he finished among the top six in the state tournament. He captured two state titles at Scott West and attracted attention from schools across the nation. Ultimately, it came down to Minnesota and Ivy League school Cornell, and Kroells opted to stay home.

"I wanted to go to the place where I felt I had the best chance of becoming a national champ," he said. "I felt like Minnesota was that place."

Although there wasn't much opportunity to crack the lineup with Nelson in place, Kroells got to wrestle Nelson daily in the wrestling room during his first two seasons with the Gophers.

That alone proved pivotal for his growth.

"I got to go up against the best heavyweight in the nation every day," he said. "That really prepared me for this season.

Gophers coach J Robinson said he is less concerned with Kroells' eight losses this season than he is of making sure his heavyweight reaches peak form in about two months for the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

"It's a process, and just because he doesn't come out of the gate and have all these wowing wins ... doesn't mean he's not getting better," Robinson said. "I can see improvement every week in what he's doing, the way he's wrestling and the confidence he brings to the mat."

The Gophers and Hawkeyes enter Friday's match with 10-0 records and top-notch talent in each weight class. But Kroells' opponent, Telford, is the best of the best.

"This weekend will be the ultimate measuring stick," Kroells said. "It's a huge opportunity for me to prove myself against a guy like that -- and it's a huge opportunity for our team to prove itself against a team like that."

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