Cornell, Nebraska-Omaha and Wartburg started the 2010-11 wrestling season as favorites to win NCAA championships. Two of the three took that tag and turned it into a reality in March.
It was no surprise when head coach Mike Denney’s UNO squad won a third consecutive Division II Championship, pulling away from St. Cloud State in the final session to win by 12 points in Kearney, Neb., the first weekend of March.
Seniors Mario Morgan (141), Ryan Pankoke (174) and Aaron Denson (184) claimed titles for the Mavericks, who saw pre-tournament favorites Esai Dominguez (149) and George Ivanov (157) drop close matches in the semifinals and first round, respectively. Taylor Escamilla somewhat made up for the loss of 2010 285-pound champion Elijah Madison by finishing sixth. Matt Baker also earned All-America status for UNO.
St. Cloud totaled six All-Americans led by 157-pound champion John Sundgren. Augustana (S.D.) appeared to be in control early in the tournament, winning 14 of 15 bouts on Day 1. But the Vikings were 1-5 in the semifinals and eventually finished third, 21 points behind UNO.
Upper Iowa, Western State, Grand Canyon, Findlay, Indianapolis and Northern State also crowned champions, with WSU’s Donovan McMahill earning Outstanding Wrestler honors. GCU’s Todd Wilcox, the champion at 133, and Indianapolis’ Nick Walpole, tops at 149, became their program’s first NCAA champions.
The biggest news from Division II, however, came hours after the Mavericks hoisted the trophy. In making a transition to Division I, university officials decided to drop the wrestling program.
“We were meeting with our team and the parents and I got this message from our athletic director (Trev Alberts),” Denney told WIN Magazine’s Mike Finn. “The first thing he said was ‘Congratulations,’ which is something he hasn’t done in two years. My wife looked at me and said, “What is wrong?’ (Alberts) had never congratulated us before, so we knew something was up.”
A wave of support has kept Denney and others somewhat optimistic about the possibility of saving the program. Stay tuned.
Jim Miller’s Wartburg squad ran away with the DIII crown, outdistancing second place Augsburg by 28.5 points in La Crosse, Wis., the same weekend as the DII meet. It was the Iowa program’s sixth title in nine years. Byron Tate and John Helgerson won titles at 197 and 285, respectively, for Wartburg, which had seven wrestlers finish sixth or better.
Augsburg, the 2010 champion, pushed four to the finals but only Zach Molitor, who beat Wartburg’s Bradley Banks at 174 pounds, earned a title.
Host Wisconsin-LaCrosse was third with Bebeto Yewah (141) winning his second championship.
Outstanding wrestler honors went to St. John’s 149-pounder Minga Batsukh, now a three-time champ, who beat Augsburg’s Tony Valek in the final. Valek beat 2010 champion Isaac Dukes of Case-Western in the semifinals. Batsukh beat Ithaca’s Blaine Woszczak, the only wrestler to pick up a victory against the champion during the regular season.
The Mongolian became just the 11th three-time DIII champion in history.
Concordia-Moorhead’s Phil Moenkedick (197) and Coe’s Clayton Rush (125) each won their second titles.
In Division I, Cornell, second to Iowa in 2010, started the season as the favorite. But during the three days in Philadelphia, it was Penn State that came out on top.
Cornell stumbled in Friday night’s semifinals with Mack Lewnes (174), Steve Bozak (184) and Cam Simaz (197) all dropping matches. Meanwhile, Penn State pushed three to the finals and wrapped things up in Saturday morning’s medal match session.
“This is a real tough tournament. Things go your way sometimes and sometimes they don’t,” said second-year Nittany Lion coach Cael Sanderson. “You just have to want it and you can see it the kids’ eyes before they wrestle. I really liked the way our guys wrestled.”
Penn State’s only champion was an unlikely one – 184-pounder Quentin Wright, seeded ninth. Freshman 157-pounder David Taylor took an unbeaten record into the final but was pinned by Arizona State’s Bubba Jenkins with a spectacular cradle in the most talked about match of the weekend.
Jenkins’ teammate, Anthony Robles, capped a sensational career with a title at 125 pounds and the Outstanding Wrestler award. The one-legged athlete dominated 2010 champion Matt McDonough of Iowa in the final.
“I had a lot of butterflies going out there,” said Robles, a three-time All-American who finished his career with a 122-23 record. “I’ve dreamt about stepping on that stage a dozen times, and this whole year I’ve been preparing for that moment.
“And I was scared. I was scared out there, but as soon as I hit that first takedown I sort of relaxed. I said, okay, back to business. Same drill as every other match.”
Cornell’s Kyle Dake won his second title in two tries, earning gold at 149 pounds.
Oklahoma State’s Jordan Oliver (133), Nebraska’s Jordan Burroughs (165) and Iowa State’s Jon Reader (174) capped perfect seasons with championships with juniors Kellen Russell (141) of Michigan, Kent State’s Dustin Kilgore (197) and Zach Rey (285) of Lehigh also claiming top honors.
As usual, the Big Ten Conference led the All-American parade with 28 of the 80. The EIWA had 15 top-eight finishers with the Pac-10 (11) and Big 12 (10) also reaching double figures. Three of the 10 for the Big 12 were champions. All 11 conferences had at least one All-American.
The six sessions of competition saw an NCAA-record 104,260 fans, breaking the previous record of 97,334 in St. Louis in 2009.
A lot has happened since Philly
• Since the completion of the Division I Championships two programs have been dropped – UNC-Greensboro and Cal State-Fullerton, both citing financial concerns. Greensboro, N.C., has been host to a solid December tournament, the Southern Scuffle. The future of that event is uncertain.
• American University, a program on the verge of extinction less than a decade ago, finished fifth at the 2011 NCAA Championships. Head coach Mark Cody was the architect.
As a student-athlete, the University of Oklahoma finished 16th in head coach Jack Spates’ final season. On April 13, the Sooners, rumored to be promoting assistant Sammie Henson, hired Cody to replace Spates.
“I think back on Tommy Evans, Stan Abel, Jack Spates and the other men who coached (at OU) and I really appreciate the tradition they’ve established,” Cody said. “It’s a responsibility to take that over, but it’s also encouraging because it’s a school that appreciates and expects success.”
Sooner wrestlers have captured seven team titles, the last coming under Abel in 1974.
• Nebraska’s Jordan Burroughs claimed his second DI championship in March, beating OU’s Tyler Caldwell in the 165-pound final. The senior from New Jersey finished an unbeaten senior campaign and followed that up less than a month later by winning a U.S. Open freestyle title at 163 pounds. Burroughs will try to earn a spot on the U.S. freestyle squad in June at the World Team Trials in Oklahoma City.
• Entering the 2011-12 season Penn State will be heavily favored to repeat as Division I champions. The Nittany Lions return 103 of the 103.5 points they scored in Philadelphia and added one of the top recruits in the country in Morgan McIntosh, an upper-weight stud. Four of Sanderson’s starters in 2010-11 were rookies and they are only going to improve.
Iowa returns four All-Americans and was the only team to beat Penn State in a dual during the regular season. Cornell loses one-third of its points from Philadelphia and may have missed a big opportunity to claim the program’s first team title.
Big 12 champion Oklahoma State finished fourth in Philly, while starting six underclassmen. Head coach John Smith loses 2011 finalist Clayton Foster but returns eight starters.
Lehigh brings back a champion, a finalist and all 58.5 of its points from a seventh-place showing in 2011.
Minnesota returns four All-Americans and adds Junior Hodge Trophy winner Logan Storley to its roster. Dylan Ness, younger brother of 2010 champion Jayson and a redshirt last season, could also have a quick impact.
But anybody in the know will tell you that stopping the Penn State train will not be easy.
• As of mid-April, it looks like there will be a new champion in Division II with UNO being purged from the landscape.
Nebraska-Kearney won the DII trophy in 2008 while Central Oklahoma earned top honors in 2007. UNO won titles from 2004-06.
St. Cloud State returns six NCAA qualifiers, including All-Americans Shamus O’Grady and Tad Merritt. Upper Iowa, fourth in 2011, also returns six All-Americans with 125-pound champion Trevor Franklin leading the pack. Upstart Grand Canyon is a third team to welcome back six qualifiers including 133-pound champ Todd Wilcox.
Augustana (S.D.) returns just three NCAA qualifiers.
• The same beat goes on in Division III. UW-La Crosse, Ithaca and St. John’s were possible threats to Wartburg and Augsburg in 2010-11 but the final tournament of the season showed Augsburg 12 points better than third place UW-L and the Knights 28 better than the Auggies.
Wartburg returns four qualifiers, including Banks, now a two-time champion and winner of 50 of his last 51 bouts. Augsburg loses a champion and a finalist.
Expect them both to reload.