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Mat King Cole: Minnesota's Konrad determined to lead Gophers to NCAA team title

Minnesota coach J Robinson is doing an interview on his cell phone on an early afternoon in Minneapolis, talking seriously about the progression of heavyweight Cole Konrad as he drives to meet his wife at the furniture store.

Robinson talks about how far Konrad has come, going from a guy virtually nobody recruited to a three-time All-American and 2006 NCAA Champion who has a legitimate chance of making the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team.

But Robinson's tone changes when he's asked about what kind of person Konrad is off the mat.

"Oh man, he's just a great kid who has a very good personality," Robinson said with a laugh. "He's very funny and witty. He text messages me the stupidest stuff. He gives me a hard time about being older and stuff like that. We have a lot of fun with each other."

Not everyone can give a veteran coach like Robinson a hard time, but the outgoing 6-foot-3, 285-pound Konrad has developed a close relationship with the Minnesota head coach.

"Once you get to know Coach Robinson, you realize what a great guy he is," Konrad said. "We joke around all the time and have a good time together. I pick on him and try to push his buttons. It's all in fun."

Now a senior, Konrad is hoping the Gophers can push all the right buttons for the upcoming 2006-07 season.

Konrad is on a mission to not only repeat as NCAA Champion at 285 pounds. Konrad wants to deliver an NCAA team title to Robinson, who guided the Gophers to team titles in 2001 and 2002. Minnesota placed second to four-time defending NCAA champion Oklahoma State last year.

The Gophers start this season ranked No. 1 with the Cowboys No. 2.

"We are extremely motivated to win the team title," Konrad said. "Our whole team worked really hard this summer. I'm still a little bitter about not winning it last year and that really motivates us to get it done this year."

The Gophers already suffered a setback when All-American Mack Reiter (133) tore his ACL in practice. Reiter had surgery on his knee last week, but hopes to be back for the end of the season.

"Me, Mack and (Minnesota 157-pounder) C.P. Schlatter all live in a house together," Konrad said. "That was a tough injury for him, but Mack is already talking about making it back by February. He's pretty determined to make it back."

Konrad is part of a talented Minnesota team that features another NCAA Champion in sophomore Dustin Schlatter at 149. NCAA runner-up Roger Kish (184) also is back. Dustin Schlatter is trying to become just the third wrestler to win four NCAA titles.

"On the mat, Dustin's very serious and all business - he's very mature in how he handles all the pressure and everything," Konrad said. "He's brought a lot to the program. He's very tough. He's just a great guy to have on the team. He's kind of a jokester off the mat and we have a good time."

Konrad flew under the radar with college recruiters until he placed second in Greco-Roman and fourth in freestyle at Junior Nationals the summer before his senior year in high school.

He signed early with Minnesota, picking the Gophers over his home state Wisconsin Badgers. He went on to win a state title his senior year at Freedom (Wis.) High School, the same school former Gopher Garrett Lowney attended.

"I really hadn't done a whole lot until I went up to Fargo after my junior year," Konrad said. "I went on a recruiting trip to Wisconsin, but Minnesota seemed like the best fit for me."

Konrad followed Lowney, a 2000 Olympic Bronze Medalist and two-time Olympian in Greco-Roman wrestling, to Minnesota and succeeded Lowney as the Gophers' starting heavyweight.

Konrad placed fourth at the NCAAs as a freshman before losing in overtime to Oklahoma State's Steve Mocco in the finals the next year. Konrad then beat Mocco four times last year, including in the NCAA finals.

"I just had more confidence last year and started believing I was the better wrestler," Konrad said. "The mental aspect of it was huge for me. When I first beat him at the All-Star Dual last year, my confidence really started to build. He has that one move, the foot sweep, and I stayed in good position and I worked real hard at countering it."

Konrad said working with Minnesota assistant coach Marty Morgan, who also has coached two-time NCAA Champions Tim Hartung and Damion Hahn along with NCAA Champion Brock Lesnar, has been a blessing.

"He's just a smart dude," Konrad said of Morgan. "He is really good at reading people and knowing what type of workouts to give you to peak at the right time. He really helps you develop. He has helped me in every aspect of wrestling, but he's really helped me in particular in the top and bottom positions. He's a really, really good coach."

Robinson said Konrad reminds him of Hartung, who made the 2002 U.S. World Team in freestyle.

"Cole wasn't a world-beater when he came here," Robinson said. "He was very diligent about what he wanted to do. He wanted to be pretty good and he's worked real hard at it. He's a lot like Hartung where he just kept getting better and better."

Konrad is agile for a wrestler his size.

"Cole is very athletic," Robinson said. "He's deceivingly quick and can really move for a heavyweight. He's gotten bigger and stronger, and he has really grown and matured as a wrestler."

Konrad has spent time recently training with Lesnar, the massive 300-pounder who spent time with World Wrestling Entertainment before trying out with the Minnesota Vikings.

"Working out with Brock helps a lot," Konrad said. "He's a big, strong guy who is tough to move. He's a great workout partner."

Konrad is scheduled to graduate this spring with a degree in business and marketing education.

He's already focused on making the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team. Konrad placed third at the 2005 U.S. World Team Trials and fourth in that event this year.

Konrad has excelled internationally. He won the 2005 Pan American Championships in freestyle, knocking off World Champion Alexis Rodriguez of Cuba at 264.5 pounds. Konrad placed third at the World University Championships this year.

Veteran Tolly Thompson has made the past two U.S. World Teams at heavyweight, winning a Bronze Medal in 2005. Mocco was second, Tommy Rowlands third and Konrad fourth at the 2006 World Team Trials.

"I have a poster in my room for the Beijing Olympics in 2008," Konrad said. "Not overlooking this season, but what really motivates me is making the World Team next year and the Olympic Team in 2008. That's what I'm really working toward."

Robinson said the 22-year-old Konrad has a chance to be the next U.S. Olympic heavyweight in freestyle.

"Cole has a lot of potential," Robinson said. "He will be right in there to make the team in 2008 and he can be the guy in 2012 for sure. He's made progress every year and I'm sure he will keep getting better."
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