As many seven programs could be in the running for the 2012 national team title at the Division II level. Perennial powerhouse Nebraska-Omaha, winners of the last three Division II championships, will not be among them after the university’s administration dropped wrestling from its curriculum just hours after the final session of the 2011 championship meet.
Mike Denney, who led UNO for 32 successful years, quickly found a home in St. Louis where Maryville started a program from scratch. How much respect does Denney have in Division II circles? The DII Wrestling Coaches Association preseason poll has Maryville ranked No. 15.
“It was certainly a shock to everyone,” said St. Cloud St. head coach Steve Costanzo, a former pupil of Denney at UNO and whose squad is the preseason No. 1. “I think there are huge concerns for everyone. We are similar in size to UNO and we are in the process of some administrative change (at SCSU).
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“As far as wrestling, though, it’s been business as usual.”
Picking a favorite for next March’s Division II championships in Pueblo, Colo., is not easy. The Huskies get the early season nod after earning runner-up honors by a mere 12 points last season.
Gone is 2011 individual champion Jon Sundgren, the programs’ first since 1995, but returning are five All-Americans — heavyweight Jake Kahnke, Tad Merritt (165), Shamus O’Grady (174), Jacob Horn (149) and Derek Skala (184). Skala, a senior, redshirted last season after three NCAA qualifying campaigns and a top eight finish in 2009.
Merritt was 38-4 a year ago and starts this season ranked No. 1 at 165. Kahnke went 29-2 and lost in the finals. He starts No. 2 behind 2011 champion Matt Meuleners of Northern State.
“I really feel like we have four guys who can win a national championship,” Costanzo said. “I think seeing [Sundgren] win last year motivated everybody in our room. [Sundgren] went through so much adversity; he committed to stay at 157 to help the team.
“We have some guys who were so close last year. They are really hungry, determined to get their picture on that wall with Sundgren.”
Like most of the DII frontrunners SCSU has some holes to fill with as many as four starting spots up for grabs as the season gets in gear.
Upper Iowa’s Peacocks have made a steady climb up the standings since moving from DIII to DII in 2005-06. After finishing 10th in 2009, Heath Grimm’s squad tied for third in 2010 and was fourth in 2011 with five All-Americans led by 125-pound champion Trevor Franklin and his stellar 27-2 campaign. Franklin, just a junior, will return second semester.
“We always train to be the best,” Grimm said. “We are relatively new to Division II but the last two years, I think, has put us in that group of 8 to 10 established programs who have a chance to win championships. There’s a transition from DIII to DII but we’ve been able to stick with what we’ve done as far as our philosophy and attitude.
“It’s nice to be up there in the rankings in the preseason but we don’t put a lot of stock in that at this stage. We do feel like we’ve got some firepower going in.”
Franklin is one of four Peacocks ranked either 1 or 2 entering the season – Carl Broghammer was third as a freshman at 197. He starts this season at No. 1; veteran Kyle Pedretti starts No. 2 at 125; Mitch Schultz starts No. 2 at 184.
Newberry has been knocking at the door and 2012 could easily see the breakthrough.
Lehigh transfer Conner McDonald was 31-3 and third at 125 as a sophomore. He starts this season No. 1. BJ Young lost in the 133-pound national finals as a rookie. He moves up to 141 where he starts No. 2 behind Nebraska-Kearney’s Dalton Jensen. Heavyweight Jake Elkins, an All-American a year ago, also returns. Matt Oliver, a redshirt last season and All-American in 2009, and UNC-Greensboro transfer Travis Sheehy could also factor in.
Nebraska-Kearney, 2008 team champions, will also have a say. Marc Bauer’s program has been among the top 10 in the final standings for 10 consecutive seasons. Jensen, a former starter at D-I Iowa State, was a finalist at 141, joining teammate TJ Hepburn, who dropped the 149-pound finals bout. Hepburn was 36-4 as a junior. UNK also has the top-ranked 184-pounder in Ross Brunkhardt, who won 29 matches as a sophomore; and the No. 2-ranked 165-pounder in Joey Wilson. Both Brunkhardt and Wilson were All-Americans in 2011.
Grand Canyon crowned its first individual champion in 2011 (Todd Wilcox at 133) and returns Victor Carazo (184) and Ted Bristol (174). Carazo was 34-4 as a sophomore.
After one day of competition at the 2011 Championships it appeared Augustana (S.D.) may earn its first DII team title. But seven All-Americans were not enough for the Vikings, who were a distant third. Three of them – Jason Jeremiason, Nate Herda and Marcus Edgington — return and head coach Jason Reitmeier will have to rely on a handful of first-year starters in 2011-12. Herda, part of a loaded 149-pound division in Kearney last March, starts the season ranked No. 1. The Vikings start the year ranked sixth.
Central Oklahoma’s youth movement will be a year older this season with all 10 of David James’ starters returning including three All-Americans – Trison Graham, Cory Dauphin and Kelly Henderson. In 29 seasons James has led UCO to seven DII championships, only one behind Cal Poly and Bakersfield, the all-time leaders.
Another veteran coach, Pat Pecora, who starts his 36th year at Pittsburgh-Johnston, returns a pair of All-Americans in Ryan Link (133) and Jack Bachman (141). The Mountain Cats start the year ranked eighth.
Wisconsin-Parkside and Ashland (Ohio) round out the top 10 in the preseason poll. Dillon Bera, Luke Rynish and Matt Gille (184) give UWP three wrestlers ranked inside the top eight. Bera, a sophomore last season, and Rynish both lost in the 2011 finals with Rynish dropping only four bouts all year.
“It’s going to be a fun year, a lot of teams can win it,” Grimm said.
And what of Maryville’s chances?
Denney’s first group will include a pair of UNO transfers — Terrell McKinney at 125 and All-American Matt Baker at 197.
“We are looking at ourselves as builders right now,” Denney said. “But we aren’t conceding anything. We are going to send out a competitive team, it will be young and not with a lot of experience, but we are working to get better every day.”
• Only three DII individual champions return this season, including Franklin (Upper Iowa), Michael Lybarger (Findlay) and Meuleners (Northern State). Lybarger was 39-4 as a junior, winning the 165-pound title.
• Six returning runner-ups return, including Young (Newberry), Jensen (UNK), Hepburn (UNK), Bera (Wisconsin-Parkside), Rynish (Wisconsin-Parkside) and Kahnke (SCSU).
• Four of the 10 weights have 2011 NCAA finalists ranked 1-2 to start the season — 141, 157, 174 and 285.