From superfan to standout wrestler, Ness is living the dream

It might go down as the longest recruiting process in Minnesota wrestling history, but it's turning out to be time well spent.

Jayson Ness was in elementary school when he started hanging around the Gophers' program often enough to catch coach J Robinson's eye.

"He used to come to the matches as a tiny, little guy," Robinson said. "I sent him a letter and a shirt, and [wrote], 'Someday, you're going to be a Gopher.' He was one of those little kids who would come up to you and you'd rub them on the head. You'd start noticing them because they're there at every dual meet. He kept growing and getting bigger and kept dreaming of being a Gopher, and now he's living his dream."

Now, almost 15 years later, Ness has caught the attention of everyone in college wrestling.

The sophomore is ranked No. 1 in the nation at 125 pounds with a 30-0 record. What's more, he is on track to break Minnesota's record for pins in a season and he might be at the front of the pack for the Hodge Trophy -- college wrestling's Heisman -- with five weeks left in the season.

"I'm just trying to go out there and score as many points as possible," Ness said. "If I can do that, I've got a better chance of getting the guy to give up, and I can pin him. My ultimate goal every time I wrestle is to pin the guy."

This is what Ness has done since Christmas:

• Pinned all six of his opponents at the Southern Scuffle, decking four in the first period.
• Won all 17 of his matches, including 10 that didn't last the entire seven minutes.
• Outscored the other seven by a combined 87-25 margin.
• Defeated No. 3 Charlie Falck of Iowa and No. 5 Brandon Precin of Northwestern by major decisions.
• Beat defending NCAA champion Paul Donahoe of Nebraska.

"Do you know where I can get about four or five more of him?" Robinson asked.

The Gophers might search for a long time before they find another story like this. Ness dealt with an assortment of ailments during his childhood -- allergies, asthma, pneumonia and a brief scare after being misdiagnosed with cystic fibrosis -- which led him to wrestling by accident.

He was supposed to be a hockey player like his father, Jay. The family moved to the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington in part for its youth programs. They started the kids on the ice in second grade, but Ness picked singlets over skates after a push from his mother.

"He was really sick all the time, and I thought I had to get him out of the house," Sally Ness said. "I took him up to [a local youth wrestling club] to get him out of the house a couple nights a week."

Ness went 1-15 during his first year. The next year, he won more than 40.

Jay Ness spent a couple of nights a week driving his son around the city so he could learn techniques from former college wrestlers. Father and son were regulars whenever Olympians and former Gophers Gordy Morgan and Brandon Paulson put on clinics.

Ness was in third grade when Morgan taught him how to pry over opponents with a half-nelson. The hold eventually helped Ness win two Minnesota state high school titles and notch 124 pins on his way to 161 victories at Bloomington Kennedy.

There was little doubt about where Ness was headed for college. Robinson called it all along -- he was going to be a Gopher.

Ness went 40-5 last year, earning the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award, capturing the conference title at 125 and placing fifth at the NCAA meet. He has been even better this year.

"I think a lot of it's just having confidence and having gone through a season already, and I can build off that," Ness said. "Going into last year, I knew I could do pretty well. But never having to make weight like that and going through a full Big Ten season and nationals, I didn't know what to expect. Coming into this year, I knew what I needed to do, knew the system, and having that experience has helped out and I've been able to keep the ball rolling since the end of last year to now."

Ness needs two pins to match current Minnesota assistant coach Marty Morgan's single-season pin record with 20. Funny thing is, Ness is getting a lot of those pins by using that half-nelson Morgan's brother, Gordy, taught him.

"He's very tenacious with it," Robinson said of the 5-foot-8 sophomore who generates leverage over shorter opponents. "I think physiologically, he's got longer arms and he's really strong. Like most moves, the tenacity adds a lot to it. He's like a dog on a bone -- he gets it and he doesn't let go of it. Most people will try something, and if they don't get it, they'll try something else. He doesn't. He gets it and gets it and gets it, and in the end, it works."

Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.