LA CROSSE, Wis. – Jim Miller is in a unique position.

The Wartburg head coach came into the year unsure about his team. After winning the national title a year ago – their eighth all-time and third in four years – the Knights lost six kids from that squad. Sure, there was two-time returning national champion Byron Tate at 197 pounds and finalist Bradley Banks was back, but question marks dotted the lineup.

During the third session of the Division III Wrestling Championships, Miller’s questions were answered in resounding fashion.

Wartburg raced to a dominating position, opening a 47.5-point advantage ahead of second place Augsburg following the first round of action Saturday. The Knights won all five semifinal matches and pushed two more into the third-place contest. The eighth Wartburg All-American went into the fifth-place contest. 

DIII CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS
1 Wartburg 126.5
2 Augsburg 82.5
3 Coe 74.0
4 Wisconsin-La Crosse 65.0
5 Ithaca 52.5
Complete Standings   Brackets
Feature: Yewah: Driven like no other
Session II: Wartburg on cusp of title
Session I: Title race far from decided

Heading into the finals, Wartburg owns a 126.5-82.5 lead, locking up a ninth national title.

How did it leave the veteran coach feeling? Well, let’s say he doesn’t often smile like he was in the warm-up area of the La Crosse Center.

“This is probably the best [results] we’ve ever had on Saturday, the most consistent,” Miller said. “That’s real gratifying. The kids have worked real hard all year and it’s paid off for them.”

He said it validated their effort, and reinforced his belief that he has a squad full of “gamers.”

“[Saturday] showed it,” Miller said. “I think we went 8-0 first round, five in the finals. That doesn’t happen very often.”

Not often at all. In fact, almost never.

The most titles won by one team in a single DIII Championship is four, on six occasions, most recently by, who else? Wartburg in 2004.

In 2003, the Knights set the record for points scored at the national meet (166.5) and largest margin of victory (82 points, 166.5 to Augsburg’s 84.5). Those records may not fall Saturday night, but that won’t matter. Miller will still be beaming about this one for a long time.

“It is unique position… we’re pretty young actually, so it’s a great relief,” Miller said of racing to the title lead so easily. “They’ve really done a great job. It’s been an amazing year, not knowing and expecting to overcome adversity after adversity with a new group, but man, they’ve really knocked down everything and won everything.”

Behind Wartburg, Augsburg is 44 points back in a tight race with Coe for second place. Neither can finish below third.  

How’d They Get Here?
It wasn’t easy, but the brackets were cut to just two remaining in the winners’ side. After 310 matches in a little more than 27 hours, the finals will see four No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups, including 125, 141, 157 and 165 pounds.

• 125 pounds – Nathan Fitzenreider from North Central (Ill.) set up the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 contest, beating Coast Guard freshman Nate Giorgio in the semifinal. After finishing third a year ago at 133, Fitzenreider (35-4) gets a shot at the title but will have stop Wartburg’s Kenneth Anderson (33-1).

• 141 --  Two-time defending national champion Bebeto Yewah (30-2) opened with a takedown five seconds into his semifinal and, in typical fashion, didn’t let up, rolling to a 14-7 win. Second-seeded Kodie Silvestri (21-2) didn’t get there as easily, needing a reversal in the last 15 seconds to set up a second No. 1 vs. 2 matchup.

• 157 – Augsburg’s Orlando Ponce (23-0) was looking for his third consecutive final and trailed 3-1, but grabbed a takedown with 31 seconds remaining in overtime to hand Chris Burdge (TCNJ) his second loss of the year. Ponce will be challenged for the title by Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s Nazar Kulchystskyy, who improved to 43-2 with a 14-5 major decision.

• 165 – Top-ranked Nice LeClere of Coe and second-seeded Landon Williams of Wartburg each had to sweat out tight matches before setting up a rematch of the conference final, won by LeClere 8-6.

The lowest remaining seed fighting for an individual crown will be Coe’s seventh-seeded Jordan Westfall at 133 pounds. Westfall upset second-seeded Corey Brown (Thiel) and Adam Sheley, the No. 3 seed from host UW-La Crosse, to reach the championship bout.

Kulchytskyy
UWO

From the Ukraine with Love
Sophomore 157-pounder Nazar Kulchytskyy isn’t happy to be in the final. He’s happy just to be wrestling.

A native of Sosnivka, Ukraine, he came to the United States at age 15. Because of his international experience – he was among the top junior freestylers for his home country – Kulchytskyy wasn’t allowed to compete in high school when he immigrated to Prairie du Chen, Wis. Once he got to college, a pair of injuries sidelined him nearly his whole freshman campaign a year ago.

Now, he’s headed to the championship and will face one of the two wrestlers – and the only Division III wrestler – he has lost to in college. Augsburg’s Orlando Ponce defeated Kulchytskyy 9-4 earlier in the season, one of the blemishes in a 56-2 career record.

How is he feeling about the rematch?

“I’m really excited that I made the final, and I’m planning just to fight for the title,” Kulchystskyy said. “I wrestled him in a dual meet and actually, I cut like 15 pounds in two days, so I felt bad. And the first match [of the meet] I wrestled. It was really tough. I felt bad, but now I feel much better and think I’ll be ready for it.”

This time his preparation was better. If both live up to their billing, it could be one of the better finals matches Saturday.

Comeback Kid
Senior Tony Velak saw his bid for a first national title – after two championship match losses – come to an end Friday night with a loss in the quarterfinals. Afterward, coach Mike Matzek told him if he thought wrestling for a title was hard, going through the wrestlebacks would be even harder.

Valek didn’t seem to listen. At least the scores of his matches didn’t look like it was hard. He had a pin in 3:49, came back with an 8-0 major decision and then a 15-2 major to reach the third-place match.

Facing Loras’ Joe Wood – who knocked out Valek in the winners’ bracket – Valek earned the third-place medal by scoring two takedowns in the last 40 seconds of the third period after trailing 3-1.

Top unseeded
Elmhurst’s Dalton Bullard became the highest unseeded wrestler to earn a medal Saturday, finishing third at 133 pounds. The junior faltered in his opening match of the tournament, losing to Coe’s Jordan Westfall, who is competing for the title in the final. Bullard then put up a dominating performance in the wrestlebacks, winning six matches including 16-0, 16-4 and 5-2 along with three pins. Three of his last four victories were against seeded wrestlers.