Byron Tate likes a challenge. The 197-pound senior will get just that before Thanksgiving.
The reigning Division III champions, Wartburg, open the 2011-12 season on Sunday at the Badger Duals in Madison, Wisc. The Knights will face No. 18 Wisconsin-Whitewater and Division I Wisconsin during a three-dual Sunday. Whitewater’s lineup should feature senior Adam Latella, fifth at last year’s national meet and the preseason No. 2 behind Tate. A chance to face any DI school motivates the Knights roster.
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On Nov. 21, Tate will participate in the NWCA All-Star Classic in Tempe, Ariz. Rarely does a student-athlete from a program outside DI get an invitation.
“One of the things I always wanted to do was wrestle in the All-Star match,” said Tate, a senior from Clinton, Iowa. “I heard some things and was hoping I would get the call. I think I’m up for the challenge. It’s a good way to start the season.”
“It’s unusual for someone outside DI to get that call,” said Wartburg coach Jim Miller. “I know he is excited and is thankful for the opportunity.”
The last DIII wrestler to compete in the All-Star Classic was Karl Monaco of Montclair State (N.J.). Tate is scheduled to face Edinboro’s Chris Honeycutt.
Tate has been unstoppable at the DIII level. Last season he was 42-1 with his only loss coming to Pittsburgh’s Matt Wilps in the Midlands Championship finals. He claimed his second national title at 197 pounds in March. As a sophomore Tate was 35-6, also earning top honors at the DIII championships.
Entering this season Tate has won 50 of his last 51 bouts.
“I don’t think I have changed that much,” said Tate. “I try to give 100-percent every day, on and off the mat. I’ve added some cross-training to work on some foot speed and to get in better shape. (Assistant) coach Chris Ortner and (2011 DIII champion) John Helgerson really work me. Everyone in the room works together.
“What I try to do is prepare for everybody the same; treat all my matches the same. I used to look at guys in high school, where they placed, what they did. I don’t do that anymore. Where they are from or who doesn’t matter, I just want to wrestle as hard as I can.”
Miller, head coach at Wartburg for 20 seasons, gave his senior the DI rankings and asked ‘where they fit in?’
“We never talk about the DIII stuff; we just talk about how good we can be. (Tate) sets his goals very high, he has no limits.”
Tate is the unquestioned leader of a Knight squad which must replace six starters from last year’s national champion squad. Miller is a phenomenal 350-33-4 at Wartburg and his 2011-12 group will include plenty of new faces – unknown to those outside Wartburg’s workout facility.
“There’s that unknown going in,” said Miller. “New guys are going to get an opportunity. It’s a big deal to make the team but it can’t stop there, we need more than that. Some teams out east are making a move so it’s no slam dunk as to who is going to win it (in March).”
Three All-Americans return. Along with Tate, Bradley Banks, a runner-up at 174 in 2011 and No. 1 entering only his sophomore campaign, and Thomas Mirocha, fourth as a sophomore at 133, are back. Senior Dylan Azinger is among the top 10 in the preseason polls.
It appears there may be a handful of programs with the ability to win a Division III championship in March when the tournament returns to LaCrosse, Wisc, for a second-consecutive year. That’s been the case a number of times over the last decade, but at the end of competition it has been either Wartburg or Augsburg hoisting the trophy every year since 1995. Wartburg has won 19 consecutive Iowa Conference Championships.
“I think it boils down to attitude,” said Tate. “Both programs have good coaches and the attitude is contagious.”
Wartburg hosts Augsburg on Feb. 2 in Waverly and there is always the chance of a meeting at the National Duals in January.
“We don’t take anything for granted and I think that plays into the streak,” said Miller. “We prepare for every match the same; we don’t underestimate anybody out there.”
Augsburg, under fourth-year head coach Mark Matzen, returns seven starters but must replace Jared Massey, a runner-up in 2011, and Zach Molitor, the champion at 174 last March. The Auggies finished second with just five qualifiers last year and return two-time runner-up Tony Valek, the preseason No. 1 at 149, Orlando Ponce, a two-time runner-up, and Chad Johnson, an All-American 285-pounder. Ponce returns second semester for a squad that was No. 7 in the preseason poll.
Dave Malacek’s Wisconsin-LaCrosse squad was third in 2011 and certainly has the firepower to end the Eagle-Auggie run. The Eagles, preseason No. 2, return two-time champion Bebeto Yewah, who is 51-3 over the last two seasons at 141 pounds, and Mike Schmitz, third last March at 174 and a champion in 2010. A pair of juniors, both All-Americans in 2011, also return – Adam Sheley (133) and heavyweight William Mayer.
“Getting that No. 2 ranking is pretty gracious,” said Malacek. “Right now we have 10 guys maybe fighting for six spots on the team. If we do a good job of coaching maybe we can be there at the end.”
UW-L will get an early indication of where the team stands, facing DII No. 1 St. Cloud State, Coe, St. John’s, Wisconsin-Whitewater and Olivet all before Christmas.
“I’m not sure what I was thinking when I put this schedule together,” said Malacek. “Every week is going to be a battle and we’ll know by Christmas what we have.”
Malacek is also looking to hosting the championships again, a year after working out all the finer details.
“By the time we started wrestling I was exhausted. I spent way too much time in the arena. I tried to do too much and it was my fault we didn’t perform the way we needed. There were a lot of unknowns, but this year I feel much more comfortable with everything. My energy will be focused in different areas.”
Coe’s Kohawks, ranked third to start the year, have seven of 10 wrestlers in the early-season rankings led by 2011 runner-up Nick LeClere (165) and James Locke (149), both seniors.
Ithaca in New York returns 133-pound champ Seth Ecker, most likely at 141 this season, and two-time runner-up Jeremy Stierly, who lost to Yewah in the 2011 finals. Derek Brenon earned the top seed as a sophomore at the 2011 championships but failed to place. Overall, six NCAA qualifiers return for Marty Nichols’ Bombers, who were fourth as a team last March.
Saint John’s in Minnesota returns three All-Americans – Senior Dustin Baxter starts the year ranked No. 1 at 184 after a 26-8, third-place season in 2011; Senior Matt Pfarr (174) and junior Chad Henle (133). The Johnnies will do their best to replace three-time champion Minga Batsukh.
Cornell College will have a strong squad with 6 of 10 starters returning, including 125-pound All-American Tim Hood. Nicholas Loughlin, No. 3 at 157, Joe Hambleton, No. 3 at 165, and Tigue Snider, No. 6 at 133, are also back.
Mount Union (Ohio), Concordia-Moorhead (Minn.) and Cortland State (N.Y.) round out the top 10 squads in the Nov. 9 NWCA Brute-Adidas DIII rankings.
Early indications show six or seven squads in the hunt for gold in March. Wartburg and Augsburg, you can bet, will be among them.
A new face
The College of New Jersey will suit up under a new coach for the first time in 35 years. Dave Icenhower retired after last season after leading his teams to 26 Metropolitan Conference titles, five DIII championships and a 535-80-4 dual standard. The victory total is No. 2 all-time in DIII.
Joe Galante, a two-time All-American for Icenhower, is the new boss.
“He has a passion,” said Icenhower of his replacement. “I know that doesn’t make you successful, but it’s a hell of a start. A lot goes into being a successful coach, and I felt he had the characteristics and traits that lend to that. A lot of times at our place we’re asking non-scholarships kids to make a Division I commitment.”
Two-time All-American Mike Denver starts the season ranked No. 4 at 197 to lead the Lions, who dropped its season opener to Stevens Institute of Technology on Nov. 8.