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Gophers wrestler Salazar reaching new heights with dominant defense

Like any wrestler, Isaiah Salazar will tell you that he aims to score as many points as he can through offensive moves. However, what really gets the Gophers 184-pounder excited is dominating from the top position, preventing his opponent from escaping and earning riding time points as rewards for his shut-down efforts.

"I've always prided myself on riding, and it's one of the things I'm always working on," said Salazar, the Big Ten champion and No. 2 seed at 184 for the NCAA Championships, which run Thursday through Saturday in Kansas City, Mo. "You get a point for a minute of riding time, and every little point matters in any match. I try to outwork the guy. It's a mental game if you can hold the guy down for more than a minute."

Pride in that craft has paid off for the fourth-year senior, who takes a 21-1 record into the national tournament and has an active 15-match winning streak in which he has outscored opponents 143-17. In 13 of those 15 wins, the Greeley, Colo., native has given up two points or fewer. He'll be one of the favorites in his weight class, and Gophers coach Brandon Eggum sees a great opportunity ahead.

"He's been consistent his whole career, but really this year, he's wrestled well," Eggum said. "To win a Big Ten title — that's something. It's as hard as winning a national title in a lot of ways."

Salazar is part of a Gophers team that has a wrestler in all 10 weight classes in the NCAA tournament. The Gophers are ranked No. 14 by Intermatwrestle.com, but Eggum sees a team that's grown through an 11-2 dual-meet season.

"I was really happy with the way our guys competed [at the Big Ten tournament]," Eggum said. "… Coming out of it with seven qualifiers is a positive, and we got the other three through the wild-card spot. I knew those three deserved to go based on their body of work."

Added Salazar, "This is one of the closest teams I've been with. We're really finding that drive, no matter if you're a starter or a backup. We're pushing each other day in and day out.''

After going 20-4 last year and losing in the blood round of the NCAA tournament, Salazar pushed himself in the offseason to improve. His coach noticed a more well-rounded athlete.

"His positioning is great," Eggum said. "He holds a really low stance, and it's hard to get to his legs. He's great at counter-scoring. He's done a really good job of wrestling well in all three positions."

Salazar opens the NCAA tournament against No. 31 seed Tony Negron of Arizona State and has Oklahoma State's No. 3 seed Dustin Plott and Penn State's No. 6 Bernie Truax, the Big Ten runner-up, on his side of the bracket. In the conference final, Salazar and Truax were tied 1-1 through regulation before Salazar prevailed in a scramble situation, getting a three-point takedown and four-point nearfall for an 8-1 win.

"It was a nice confidence boost, winning [the Big Ten title], but it's not the end goal for me," said Salazar, who is 7-1 this season vs. the rest of the 184-pound NCAA field. "It's a step in the right direction in what I planned on doing this year. It's definitely going to give me momentum, focus and something I learned from. Everything didn't go perfect, so there's things to build on."

Should Salazar reach the final, he could face top-seeded Parker Keckeisen, who beat Salazar 3-2 in last year's NCAA quarterfinals. Salazar wouldn't look that far ahead, but acknowledged, "I have the mentality that I don't fear anyone."