Sean Russell realized it wasn’t going to be easy.
But leaving Edinboro was something he felt like he needed to do.
“I love Coach (Tim) Flynn and the coaching staff I wrestled for,” Russell said. “Those guys were awesome. I had a great four years there.”
When Flynn left Edinboro following the 2017-18 season to take over as the head coach at West Virginia, Russell had a decision to make.
Stay at Edinboro for his senior season, follow Flynn to his new school or transfer somewhere else.
Russell considered West Virginia, but his decision ultimately came down to two schools.
Minnesota and Missouri.
After visiting both schools, and liking them both, he chose the Gophers.
“I’ve worked my whole life to be an NCAA champion,” Russell said. “This is my last year and my last shot. I want to make the most of it.”
Russell, a four-time Georgia state champion, was superb as the starting 125-pounder over the last three seasons for Edinboro.
He went 97-24, was a three-time NCAA qualifier and won three Eastern Wrestling League titles. He also was an All-American after placing seventh at the 2017 NCAA Championships.
Russell has an 8-6 career record at the NCAA tournament.
He considered following Flynn to West Virginia, but there were issues with not enough of his credits transferring from Edinboro.
Russell instead arrived at the University of Minnesota in early June, taking summer classes and working out with his new teammates. He is scheduled to graduate in May.
“It’s going awesome up here,” he said. “Minnesota has an unbelievable atmosphere to train in. We have great coaching with a high level of wrestling minds in our room. And I love the guys on our team. There are a lot of wrestlers in here with high goals. It’s a great team environment with everything you need here to be successful. I’m loving it.”
Russell’s move to Minnesota provides the Gophers with a lethal lineup of lightweight wrestlers.
NCAA runner-up Ethan Lizak (133 pounds), national qualifier Mitch McKee (141) and All-American Tommy Thorn (149) are each bumping up a weight this season.
Minnesota also has a top lightweight coach in past Gopher All-American Zach Sanders, who is still competing internationally in freestyle.
“We have an awesome training situation — there are so many good, tough guys to wrestle with,” Russell said. “I don’t think there is a better room in the country for a 125-pounder. It’s as deep as you can get.”
Russell is expected to begin the season ranked in the top eight at 125 pounds.
“Sean’s been great — he’s come in here and fit in very well with our guys. He’s very well-liked,” Minnesota coach Brandon Eggum said. “He has a very positive attitude and he’s been working hard. He’s very coachable and he’s a high-character guy. He’s excited to be here and we’re excited to have him here. He’s really fun to work with.”
Russell is a wrestler that Eggum knows well.
“We recruited Sean coming out of high school, so we knew him and had followed his career in high school and college,” Eggum said. “We were fortunate to have another chance to recruit him again when he was looking to transfer.
“He’s very dedicated and he’s a very mature wrestler. He knows what it takes to be successful. I know he really wants to go out with a strong showing as a senior.”
Russell’s bid to earn back-to-back All-American honors at Edinboro came up just short this past March. The No. 11 seed at the NCAA tournament, Russell went 2-2 in the event.
“It was heartbreaking,” he said. “It was tough to finish the season like that. It was very hard and very frustrating for me. There were definitely some things I could’ve done better.”
Russell addressed a number of those areas after he arrived in Minneapolis.
“I’ve always been a smaller 125-pounder and I worked really hard with a strength coach this summer. I can definitely feel the difference with how much stronger I am,” he said. “I’m also in better shape than I’ve ever been going into a season. I want to wrestle at a high pace. At the same time, I hope to strategize a little more and watch more film this year.
“I’m also being more diligent with my diet and nutrition. I want to give myself every opportunity to excel this season. I want to win that national title. It’s always been a goal of mine”
Russell is part of a Golden Gophers team that hopes to surprise a few people this season. Minnesota tied for 17th at the 2018 national tournament.
The Gophers feature one of the country’s most highly touted recruits in freshman heavyweight Gable Steveson, a Junior and Cadet world champion who was ranked No. 1 nationally coming out of high school.
“Our team is really motivated and really determined,” Russell said. “We’ve got a bunch of good wrestlers in our room who are working really hard. Our goal is to come away with a team trophy at the national tournament this season. We’re excited to see what we can do.”
Craig Sesker has written about wrestling for more than three decades. He’s covered three Olympic Games and is a two-time national wrestling writer of the year.
This story also appears in the Oct. 12 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.