Minnesota All-American Jake Bergeland (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
Everyone likes an underdog right? The Rocky movies, Cool Runnings, The Replacements, Invincible, Major League. Great stories with fun characters all resting on the belief that you can reach your goals even if the odds are stacked against you. Going into this interview, that was how I viewed the season that Jake Bergeland had for the Golden Gophers last year. It had all the ingredients for an underdog story. His first year in the lineup for Minnesota, had some injuries that prevented him from starting in previous years, as well as just being behind some really talented wrestlers. Those trials and tribulations, in my mind and in the minds of many others, meant that Jakob Bergeland was a great underdog story. However, that's not how the story went for Jake. That's not how he pictures himself. Jake, like many college wrestlers, viewed his path into the lineup as a tough, but necessary road. The hurdles and struggles along the way only made him stronger and helped develop him into the guy who felt ready to get onto the podium as soon as he had his chance. He knew that he would get there eventually, but those first couple of years made him into the wrestler that he is now.
He was 22-11 in his first year in college, while redshirting. He felt ready to have that impact after that season. Most guys have a lot of growth in their first year, but there was a lot of excitement after that year. Unfortunately, he was still behind Steve Bleise who had transferred in, and had been a bloodround wrestler, as well as Tommy Thorn bumping up to 149, making it exceedingly difficult to get that first chance. Pair that with an injury, and guys like Brayton Lee and Michael Blockhus coming to Minnesota and into the 149 weight class as well. Once recovered, there was still a lot of talent in the Golden Gophers room keeping Jake from having his chance.
Going into the 2021-22 season, he knew that if he really wanted the chance to compete, he would have to drop down to 141. "I have to go 100% in if I want to do this, and I decided to finally drop down." Jake was always around 141 in high school, so he was used to wrestling guys this size. It seemed like the right time and the right choice, so he went for it. In the current landscape of college sports, transferring to other institutions to get a chance is commonplace. Coaches have to build a lineup, while also speaking to other guys to strengthen their lineups and challenge their athletes, as well as continuing to re-recruit their own team to keep them from transferring. It's the coaches' livelihood, and it's what they are supposed to do, but it doesn't make it easier on athletes.
When speaking to Jake about this, he had a refreshing response. "You always want depth in the room. Guys fighting for spots is what you want. I wrestled Brayton twice one year, and they were close, and the same thing with Blockhus. I just kept looking at it as 'I'm going to get better and be better for this.' They believed in me, but these last 18 months of really taking off again and having some good showings, they reminded me that I can do this."
Minnesota All-American Jake Bergeland and the Gopher coaching staff (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
I have to reiterate, I think that athletes should do what's best for them because there are only so many chances. But I also respect and value the athlete who recognizes that staying here and fighting for their spot is actually what's best for them. Consistency of message is key, and especially for young athletes. Clearly, the Gopher coaching staff knew what they had in Jake.
Jake continued to elaborate on the transfer landscape in sport. "Minnesota has been my childhood dream school, and I had the opportunity to come here, but my main component of not wanting to leave was just my friends and my teammates. I love it here and didn't want to leave. I figured I could go somewhere to start, but if I can't be in the starting lineup here, then how am I going to reach my goal of being a National Champion, if I can't even start in my own room." It's the most simple of concepts when you think about it that way right? If you can't beat a wrestler from another team, then I guess you wouldn't start there, would you? To be the National Champion, which I think it's safe to say is most college wrestlers' goal, you should probably start with your own team.
This is the part where my whole mindset on who Jake Bergeland is, and what he can do in his final season changed. When I brought up the idea of the underdog piece, it was mostly a question of if he identified with that mentality. "I really didn't. For me I want it, so I'm going to go take it, because I love the journey, but I was sick and tired of being close but not there. The two things that really drove me were that I got knocked out of the top 100 recruits and they had some article posted, I think from Flo, that said the kids outside the top 100 won't be an All American, statistically. I looked at that, and wasn't ranked there, and thought that would be so cool that I could be one of the guys to prove them wrong."
That was it. It wasn't about being an underdog. It was about taking the opportunity when it's finally presented and doing everything you've prepared to do the entire time. I heard an Alexander Karelin quote recently, and I'm paraphrasing, but it was essentially how he ended his warmups by reminding himself all of the work that he did to get here, and that he had a good warmup, and with all the work he puts in and his body being ready, he knew that it was over for his opponent. That's kind of how this resonated with me. Jake expected to win as soon as he had that chance. This was no underdog story.
Another thing we discussed was an observation I had earlier in the season. I remember on the Bloodround Podcast (shameless plug), making the argument after he beat Micic in the dual, so much of the conversation was trying to figure out what was wrong with Micic. I pushed back against that narrative and jumped on board immediately that Jake has had an impressive season, and that Micic's other "questionable" loss was to Cole Matthews (who currently sits at #1 at 141 by Intermat). We then talked about the impact of those wins throughout the season (Jake had 12 wins over ranked opponents last season). "That (Micic) match, my coaches and I talked about the contrast of styles and we believed that I could go win it. I did believe it. I just tried to put as much pressure on him as possible. The other thing was that I needed a signature win. In that match, something clicked in my head. It wasn't pretty, but I pulled it out. I heard a lot of the comments, and they were all "what's wrong with him" and it had nothing to do with how I was wrestling. It was funny. You take that stuff and ignore it, but also use it for fuel." The season is notoriously referred to as a grind, so fuel like that is always helpful to keep pushing through.
Minnesota All-American Jake Bergeland in his dual win over Stevan Micic (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
We discussed his All-American finish, as well as his Academic All Big Ten finish, and how he is electing to come back for his last year of eligibility. I used to think that these extra years would be used more sparingly, but clearly wrestling, for many, ends after their final year of NCAA eligibility. He discussed the decision to come back, and the decision-making around it. "I thought it would be a hard decision. During the season, I thought I could go either way, be content and be proud of my career and graduate, or I could come back. It was only a week or two after the season I just decided, 'I'm still driven, and what's the next thing.' The ultimate goal was always to be a National Champion, and I get one more shot, so that's the next thing. I was proud of the year that I had, and I'm proud of our team, but both the goals of an individual National Title, and a team trophy, those are the two things that we are going after this next year. The whole team is still here, all of my teammates and friends from last year, so I get to have another year with them, which is one of the main reasons to come back."
Finished up the interview by discussing his Intermat preseason ranking at 3, and the idea of coming into the season with a target on his back. "Act like you're in first, and train like you're in second." He's excited to have a full season, and having more big matches. Having that sense of routine, and still having that goal out there to become a National Champion remains the focus. Making adjustments, leaning on experiences from last season, and learning from the big matches this season is how he expects to reach those goals. I've interviewed a lot of people over the years. Athletes, coaches, etcâ€¦ But the confidence in Jake's voice, and how clearly he was able to share his experiences through his career, how he values them, and how he used them to be ready for last season was really impressive. This is not an underdog story. This is the story of a supremely talented and expertly trained warrior ready to go take what's his. Jake Bergeland is like Maximus being thrown into the Gladiator pits in Rome. Jake Bergeland is ready to take what's his. Watch Jake Bergeland next season, and tell me if you're not entertained.