Could this be the year?
Augsburg’s Valek focused on finally shedding bridesmaid title
Tony Valek used to train to "try and catch up to those guys."
Now, many of the nation's top 149-pounders at the Division III level are trying catch up to Valek.
As a sophomore at the 2010 Division III Championships, Valek advanced to the final where Case Western's Isaac Dukes gave Augsburg's Valek an 8-4 setback.
A year later, Valek again met Dukes, this time in the semifinals of a weight class some in DIII circles considered the toughest. Valek shocked Dukes with a fall at the 6:46 mark to advance to his second consecutive final. However, waiting in that final bout was Minga Batsukh of Saint John's (Minn.), already a two-time champ. Batsukh claimed a 7-4 victory.
|BEST OF MINNESOTA|
Second-ranked Augsburg earned victories against in-state rivals St. Olaf, Concordia-Moorhead and St. John's to claim the 2012 Minnesota Duals on Saturday.
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Without question, Valek has his sights set on that top spot.
"I think, at times, I was training to catch up to those guys," said Valek, who is 21-0 and ranked No. 1 at 149 pounds this year. "I was trying to close that gap. Minga [Batsukh] was really good. I've worked really hard to put myself in a position [to win].
"The goal when you come to a place like Augsburg is to be a national champion and to help the team win a championship."
Augsburg head coach Mark Matzek won two titles as an Auggie.
"The two times he's been in the finals, he hasn't wrestled poorly, he's just ran into some really tough competitors," Matzek said. "[Tony] is a four-year starter and everything is going well for him right now. If he keeps doing what he is doing, he will have success at the end."
Valek has 113 career victories. On Tuesday, the annual 'Battle of the Burgs' hits the mats in Waverly, Iowa, when Augsburg and Wartburg renew their heated rivalry.
Valek insisted the league duals were important for regional seeding, but that "it's hard not to look ahead."
Wartburg sits atop the Division III team rankings. The 2011 champions are 14-1 with the only loss coming to Division I Wisconsin on a tiebreaker. The Knights hammered Augsburg 29-6 in the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals final in January. Valek was not in the lineup due to injury.
"One of my biggest memories is from the dual a couple of years ago when we went to Waverly and beat them in their place," Valek said. "Duals are the most fun to me. You've got 15 or so guys going into that hostile environment; very few fans are on your side. It's you against everybody else.
"Training pretty much stays the same but the focus picks up the week of the [Wartburg] dual."
"The kids always circle the dual," Matzek said. "It's one of the reasons you go to Wartburg or Augsburg. It's always a great litmus test as to see where each of us are. Neither team wants to lose this dual."
Wartburg head coach Jim Miller doesn't put too much stock in early season rankings. Augsburg started the year outside the top five.
"At the end of the year, it's been Wartburg and Augsburg," Miller said. "It's pretty special to look at the way the two programs have battled back and forth for so long. I expect them to be there again at the end of this year."
Joining Valek at the top of the rankings for Augsburg is 285-pounder Chad Johnson, who takes a 24-1 mark into Tuesday. Also, 165-pounder Orlando Ponce, like Valek, is a two-time NCAA finalist and three-time NCAA qualifier. He sits No. 2 at 165 pounds with a 14-0 mark this season.
"We need some of our other guys to really step up," Matzek said. "In order to beat them in a dual or in the tournament, we have to turn the tables at a few weights."
Although Augsburg won just two matches in the Duals final, three of the bouts were decided by three points or less.
"To beat [Wartburg] we have to wrestle harder than we have, find a way to turn some of those close matches around," Valek said. "It's going to be a tough match. It was disappointing to have to sit out because those are big matches. But I guess it's better to be a little injured now than in March."