Ethan Lizak (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
Minnesota's Ethan Lizak finished as the NCAA runner-up at 125 pounds in his sophomore season. He was one of four All-Americans for the Gophers at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in St. Louis, Missouri.
InterMat recently caught up with Lizak.
How has your life changed, if at all, since you made the NCAA finals last month?
Lizak: It's been pretty much the same as before. Making the finals and not winning it has made me work a little harder. I know I'm right there with the best guys. It keeps me hungry. That's pretty much the only thing that has changed.
The NCAA tournament brackets are released more than a week before the competition begins. Leading up to the NCAAs, how much scouting and game planning did you do on individuals you might face in the tournament?
Lizak: I didn't really do much scouting. When I've done scouting in the past I've kind of focused too much on what they're going to do, and I kind of wrestle to their style. This year I tried to focus on wrestling my style and not really worry about what the other guy is going to do, just worry about what I'm going to do, how I'm going to get to my attacks and how I'm going to get to my turns.
Ethan Lizak gets his hand raised after a victory in the NCAA semifinals (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
Based on the NCAA tournament seeds, it appeared you could meet Penn State's Nick Suriano in the quarterfinals. However, Suriano ended up scratching the day before the tournament. What went through your mind when you heard that Suriano was out?
Lizak: I wanted another shot at him, so I was kind of disappointed about that. But it didn't really change much. I knew what I had to do. At NCAAs every guy is going to be tough. I knew I had to be ready no matter who I was going to wrestle. It didn't really change much. I just had to go out there, get to my attacks and score points.
Describe what it was like to get on the elevated platform and wrestle in front of a sold-out crowd in the NCAA finals.
Lizak: It was pretty nuts just running out there and feeling those flames come up right next to you, getting up on that stage and seeing all the lights. It was nuts, but I've been in big matches before. I knew what I had to do. I just kept calm and once the whistle blew I was ready to go.
After the first period in your NCAA finals match against Lehigh's Darian Cruz you trailed 2-1. You chose to start the second period in the down position. You escaped 30 seconds into the period to tie the match. However, many questioned why you didn't choose top based on your previous success on top against Cruz. What went into that decision?
Lizak: I was kind of looking at my coaches and they were signaling for me to go bottom. I didn't really put much thought into it. If I had to do it over again I probably would have chosen top. Just being out there, it's hard to really stop and think about what you want to do. I felt like I could get at least one takedown. I knew an escape would tie the match. I know he's pretty good on bottom too, so I didn't know if he was going to be able to get an escape. It was a tough decision. Next time I wrestle him I might think more about strategy going into the match, but I didn't really think too much about what I would choose in different situations. I just went out there ready to wrestle.
Ethan Lizak scores nearfall points on SIUE's Freddie Rodriguez in the NCAA quarterfinals (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
It seems like many matches in Division I wrestling are won on the feet. However, you seem to win many of your matches on the strength of your top wrestling. How did you develop your mat wrestling skills?
Lizak: Just through practice. My freshman year I rode a lot of guys, but I wasn't getting a lot of turns. I kind of focused my redshirt year on seeing what guys did and seeing how I could get my turns off of it. I figured out a new technique and started incorporating it into matches. I just started getting turns off of it. Guys are scared of me getting that, and it starts to open up more stuff.
You have credited Zach Sanders for your improvement from neutral. Specifically, how have you improved on your feet?
Lizak: We do at least a couple technique sessions a week. He has helped me with some setups on my feet, some different strategies, and how to approach matches on my feet. Just wrestling with him you figure some stuff out because he's one of the best guys I'll wrestle. He's a four-time All-American. He's really helped me just by wrestling him. I've figured some stuff out that works on him that will probably work on most guys I'm going to wrestle. I've just built off that and it's really helped.
You grew up in eastern Pennsylvania. Obviously there are several Division I wrestling programs in the state and surrounding states. How did you end up at Minnesota?
Lizak: I always knew I wanted to wrestle in the Big Ten. I was looking at a couple schools in the Big Ten like Penn State, Nebraska and Minnesota. One thing that just kind of stood out was J [Robinson] flew out to my house. None of the other coaches did that. I thought that was pretty cool. That's one of the reasons I chose Minnesota. Also, being there on my visit, I liked a lot of the wrestlers on the team and how close they were, so that was a factor in my decision.
Ethan Lizak rides Iowa's Thomas Gilman (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
Minnesota exceeded many people's expectations this season. The Gophers finished seventh at the NCAAs and had four All-Americans. Was this past season a success from a team standpoint?
Lizak: Yeah, I think it was a successful season. From where we were last year we definitely improved. We want to work toward getting as many All-Americans as we can next year. Overall, I did think we really improved. We had some guys in the round of 12. We had four All-Americans. Most people probably projected two or three All-Americans, so I would say it was a success.
You're one of two Gopher All-Americans returning and you have several NCAA qualifiers back. The nation's top recruit, Gable Steveson, recently committed to Minnesota. Where do you see the Minnesota program going in the coming years?
Lizak: I think we're only going to see improvement. The coaches have really helped us all out a lot. I think it has shown just from the beginning of the season where we were to where we finished, we all improved a lot. With good guys coming into the room, like Gable and other incoming recruits, it's only going to make the room tougher and that will definitely help us in the long run. When you have good practice partners it makes you better.
Ethan Lizak talks with Minnesota coaches Brandon Eggum and Zach Sanders (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
Brandon Eggum took over as Minnesota's head wrestling coach this season. What's it like wrestling for Eggum?
Lizak: He's a great coach. Before matches he'll see that I'm nervous. He'll come over, talk to me and get me ready. I think it has really helped calm me down, especially during the dual meet season when I was starting to doubt myself. The weight cut was pretty tough. I had the flu. I lost a couple matches that I probably shouldn't have. I was kind of feeling down, and he kind of helped me get back on track and finish strong at the end of the year at the Big Tens and NCAAs. A lot of that is his work, along with the work of Zach Sanders.
You mentioned the weight cut to 125 pounds was pretty tough. Is there a chance you could move up to 133 pounds at some point?
Lizak: Next year I think I'll stay at 125 pounds, but I'm not sure how it will go my senior year. I'll definitely have to be more careful with my diet. I came back in January after wrestling just tournaments and I wasn't used to the one-hour weigh-ins for dual meets. I definitely had to get adjusted to that. My first couple duals were pretty rough. But I think toward the end of the year I started to figure it out. With the coaches helping me with my nutrition, I think I'll be ready to go next year and figure out how to wrestle the dual meets better.
You were a member of the Junior World Team in freestyle while in high school. Do you have freestyle goals while you're in college or after college?
Lizak: I'm wrestling freestyle now. I'm definitely going to wrestle University Nationals this year. One of my goals will be to win that. But I'm just trying to focus on one year at a time. I'm not really focusing on what I'm going to do after college. I think freestyle will definitely help me on my feet because it's all wrestling on your feet so it will only make me better. So that's why I'm really going to focus on freestyle over these next couple months. I think that will help me a lot for next year.
This story also appears in the April 14 issue of The Guillotine. The Guillotine has been covering wrestling in Minnesota since 1971. Its mission is to report and promote wrestling at all levels -- from youth and high school wrestling to college and international level wrestling. Subscribe to The Guillotine.