LA CROSSE, Wis. — For the uninitiated, it’s overwhelming. Six mats. Match after match after match, blistering through the brackets. Bouts racing down each weight, all 10 of them, keeping the fans on the edge of their seats.
Hardly anyone could keep up with the math in the team race Friday night at the Division III Wrestling Championships at the La Crosse Center. No one could be blamed. The action was intense and fast.
|Session Two: Standings | Brackets|
|Session One: Wartburg leads, but Coe in position|
When it was done, Wartburg, the easy favorite, had a 22.0-point cushion ahead of host school Wisconsin-La Crosse. Augsburg was third, one point behind UW-L with 47.0 points, but it may be too far back as the Knights try to lock up their fourth crown in five years Saturday morning. Still, the Auggies likely will grab a top-four finish and a trophy for the 24th consecutive year — a streak exceeded at any level only by Oklahoma State’s 29-year run.
To get there, picture this snapshot, all of which happened within the first 35 minutes of the second session:
• Coe’s No. 3 seed Jimmy Gotto suffered a stunner at 125 pounds, getting a reverse to tie it in the final 30 seconds before sixth-seeded Grant Sutter (UW-Whitewater) pulled an escape with less than a tick left. That came just minutes before Coe got a surprise semifinalist when No. 7 seed Jordan Westfall upset second-seeded Corey Brown (Thiel), who had won his first two matches by 13-4 and 15-6 margins.
• Wisconsin-La Crosse, the host school, jumped right into the discussion as two-time national champion Bebeto Yewah collected a fall at 141 pounds. That was only two minutes after teammate and No. 3-seed Adam Sheley pinned his way into the 133-pound semifinals.
• Also at 141 pounds, Augsburg’s Will Keeter had been 3-0 this season against fifth-seeded Ryan Timmerman, but the fourth time wasn’t the charm as Timmerman turned a Keeter mistake into back points on his way to an 8-4 victory.
• Wartburg’s No. 2 seed, Kody Silvestri, almost added to the melee, but hung on to come out unscathed at 141, rolling to a 1-0 victory against seventh-seeded Josh Malave.
And that was just getting things warmed up.
Call It a Comeback
Augsburg’s top-seeded 154-pounder Orlando Ponce, a two-time national finalist, trailed early but came back to earn a pin, leaving the Auggies feeling good. They still had top-seeded and 30-0 Tony Valek wrestling at that exact moment on the adjoining mat.
The emotion changed in a split second, as his bid to reach a third consecutive national title match ended when he lost in overtime, giving up a reverse with three seconds left. Valek had won 26 of 30 matches by bonus points.
“We’re feeling pretty good. A little bittersweet,” Augsburg coach Mark Matzek said after his team put three into the semifinals. “We’d like to have five semifinals coming through … they took a fall but I was really impressed with the way they came back in the wrestleback round to become All-Americans. And not just only getting the win, but getting the fall. Those are some big team points. So they’re not just wrestling for themselves, they’re wrestling for the team.”
When the first day was complete, Wartburg led the charge as expected, putting five in the semifinals. UW-L also has five, including two upsets, and Augsburg has three. The Auggies picked up at least five All-America awards for the 24th consecutive year, trailing the Knights who, despite putting 10 in the Championship, still did pretty well with eight All-Americans.
Now the fight continues Saturday, and it won’t be any easier.
“I told Tony Valek, ‘If you thought winning a national title was tough, this is going to be tougher,’ and it is,” Matzek said. “To have your dreams crushed and then an hour, hour and 15 minutes later to be asked to come back out there, that’s why this sport is so great because you have to face that adversity.
“You can’t just go back in the corner and let the world go by. You have to face that adversity and this experience is going to help Tony Valek and make him a better man than having won a national title.
Like Matzek, Ponce expected nothing less.
“It’s unfortunate [about Valek losing], but he’s a tough wrestler and I guarantee he’ll come back and score a lot of points and place as best he can,” Ponce said.
Along with Valek, top-ranked Jules Doliscar of Ithaca lost at 174 pounds. That made three No. 1 seeds — Mount Union heavyweight Derick Hesson bowed out of the title chase in the first round — who fell before the end of Day 1.
Lost in Time
At nearly the exact same moment Valek was losing, another win may have been more surprising in the way it played out.
Fourth-seeded Jeremy Stierly of Ithaca had two injuries this season limiting him to just nine matches, and he was at a new weight (149). Still, like Valek, Stierly was a two-time finalist who hadn’t won a title.
You wonder if that was going through his mind. Something was as, after trailing 3-0 in the third, he finally got on the board with a reversal with less than a minute to go. Then, as Valek was falling from the unbeaten, the crowd nearly drowned out the Ithaca bench exploding when Stierly took Coe’s James Locke to the mat with a standing cradle, scoring five points with less than three seconds left to walk away with a 7-4 win and spot in the semifinals.
Wrestling a ‘Burg
It may only be a semifinal, but it’s sure to be one match fans, wrestlers and coaches will be focused on Saturday morning. At 197 pounds, top-ranked and two-time defending champion Byron Tate will face Augsburg’s Brad Baus. It won’t be just another match.
“It is the grand stage. Both wrestlers aren’t just wrestling an opponent, they’re wrestling the other ‘Burg,” Matzek said. “They’re focusing on that. There’s pressure that it’s a semifinal match it’s even more because they’re wrestling a ‘Burg.
“That’s a big bite to take wrestling Byron Tate, but hey, anything’s possible especially in the sport of wrestling.”
The One that Didn’t Disappoint
Coming into the All-America round, many had a 174-pound matchup between Wartburg’s Bradley Banks and Coe’s Scott King circled as a key match to watch. They lived up to the billing.
Banks scored early but Coe countered, leading at the end of the first as he stopped a Banks’ throw and ended up with back points for a 5-4 lead. After a reversal and escape tied it at 6-6 at the end of the third, Banks finally put the match away 11-7, but not until the final seconds. In the last ticks of the match, King went for a throw of his own, but Banks’ counter put the Kohawk on his back for the four-point win.
Welcome to the Club
Coast Guard’s Nate Giorgio became the first freshman of the weekend to earn All-America honors when he raced into the national semifinals. The newcomer, who was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler and Rookie of the Year by the New England Wrestling League two weeks ago, had the quickest pin of the day when the unseeded 125-pounder turned No. 5 seed Daniel Mendoza in 45 seconds in the first round before coming back with a 10-4 win against fourth-seeded Riki Reynolds.
Now Giorgio gets top-seeded Nathan Fitzenreider of North Central (Ill.) on Saturday morning. The idea of facing the No. 1 wrestler doesn’t seem to faze Giorgio.
“I knew I was underrated with the seeding. All the kids from one conference were ahead of me, I just didn’t let that bother me and came out and wrestled,” Giorgio said. “I have no pressure, he has all the pressure. I’m just going to go out there and wrestle.”
Hitting the Books Too
Friday night, 145 wrestlers were named to the Scholar All-America squad while 25 squads, lead by the top squad Augsburg, earned the academic team honor. Among the notable names on the individual list were Fitzenreider and Stierly.
Unseeded to All-American
A total of 20 wrestlers reached All-America status despite not being seeded entering the meet. Along with Giorgio, three other unseeded wrestlers at 125 pounds came through wrestlebacks to remain alive heading into Saturday, earning a top-eight finish.