Heading into the 2012 Division II Championship in Pueblo, Colo., it was anybody’s guess as to who would hoist the trophy at the end of three days. It required a Saturday evening knockout punch, but Nebraska-Kearney ended up 12 points better than second-place St. Cloud State.
The long road to 2013 has already started in most wrestling rooms around the country. And again there will be no clear-cut favorite. The loss of powerhouse Nebraska-Omaha after the 2010-11 season has created plenty of competition among the top dogs of Division II.
“There are a lot of tough programs, programs that are getting better each year,” Nebraska-Kearney head coach Marc Bauer said. “To win one takes a complete team effort. It’s going to be hard for us to replace guys like [Dalton] Jensen, T.J. [Hepburn] and Joey Wilson. They’ve meant so much to our program.”
The Lopers lose four of seven All-Americans from 2012, including Jensen and Hepburn, who were national champions. Wilson and Ross Brunkhardt finished third and fourth, respectively.
Can UNK repeat? Certainly. But heading into the offseason it is clear that, like last season, there are plenty of other contenders.
Including the 2010-11 season, 10 programs return at least three All-Americans. Central Oklahoma leads that pack with five, two from 2011 and three from 2012. St. Cloud State and Pittsburgh-Johnstown each return four with UNK, Findlay, Grand Canyon, Newberry, Upper Iowa, Wisconsin-Parkside and Ouachita Baptist each bringing back three.
Four champions return in 2013 — Grand Canyon’s Kyle McGrite, Upper Iowa’s Trevor Franklin, Nebraska-Kearney’s Raufeon Stots and Northern State’s Mitch Meuleners, who will seek a third championship along with Franklin next March. Six wrestlers who lost in the final are also expected back including St. Cloud State’s Andy Pokorny and Jake Kahnke, Newberry’s BJ Young, Maryville’s John Hagerty and Mason True and Adam Walters of Findlay.
The toughest weight? It could be a toss-up but 133 pounds returns seven All-Americans. Two weights, 125 and 184, return six of the top eight.
It’s not easy to pick a frontrunner from that list.
Central Oklahoma qualified nine for the 2012 Championship but produced just two fifth-place finishers and a fourth-place award. One of those wrestlers who was fifth, 149-pounder Ky Corley, expects to enter law school and end his mat career. The other eight are expected to return.
“We were young [in 2011] and still pretty young this year,” head coach David James said. “These guys keep getting good experience and we’re going to get a bunch of them back for next year. You have to wrestle well for two days at nationals, you can’t have a bad round if you expect to win it.”
Only Cal Poly and California Bakersfield, each with eight, have more titles than UCO, which last won in 2007.
St. Cloud State has finished second the last two seasons. Steve Costanzo returns a pair of second-place finishers in Andy Pokorny (133) and Jake Kahnke (285), along with contender Shamus O’Grady (174). Jacob Horn (149) was also in the top eight in 2011.
Pittsburgh-Johnstown brings back two All-Americans from 2011 — Ryan Link (133) and Jack Bachman (141) — plus Dave Fogle, third at 125 pounds, and Travis McKillop, seventh at 174 pounds. The Mountain Cats won NCAA titles in 1996 and 1999 and finished 12th in Pueblo.
The reigning champion Lopers bring back 149-pound champ Raufeon Stots, improving young heavyweight Kevin Barrett, who was third in 2012, and Mark Fiala, who was eighth at 174 pounds. One other NCAA qualifier, 197-pounder Matt Lenagh, is also expected back.
Upper Iowa was fourth in 2011 and sixth in 2012, but returns what should be a good squad.
Trevor Franklin will be back for his senior campaign and shooting for a third title. He won the 125-pound title in 2011 and followed that with an undefeated season at 133 pounds.
Mitch Schultz was sixth in 2011 and fifth at 184 pounds in 2012. A third returning All-American, 197-pounder Carl Broghammer, had 31 wins as a freshman two seasons ago when he finished third. He did not qualify for nationals in 2012 but should be back in the hunt next season at a weight class with only three top finishers returning. The Peacocks also return three other NCAA qualifiers, giving head coach Heath Grimm six wrestlers with tournament experience.
Findlay’s Shawn Nelson was named the DII Coach of the Year after leading the Roughnecks to a third-place finish in 2012. Nelson returns three All-Americans including finalists Mason True (165) and Adam Walters (184), who will start next season most likely ranked No. 1. Ben Sergent was fourth at 125 in Pueblo while 285-pounder Adam Tumlin won a pair of matches and is expected back.
Findlay loses the services of 2011 champion Michael Lybarger, who finished his career in 2012 with another All-American medal.
Another team to watch is Grand Canyon, which was fourth in 2012. Despite losing superstar Victor Carazo, a three-time All-American and champion in 2012, head coach RC LaHaye brings back 125-pound champion Kyle McCrite, third-place medalist Bobby Ward (149) and 2011 All-American Teddy Bristol (157), plus 197-pounder Celic Bell.
Newberry returns three All-Americans, including two-time runner-up BJ Young, who will be a junior. Four NCAA qualifiers are gone, however.
Wisconsin-Parkside had four All-Americans in 2012. Three of them return, including 157-pounder Dillon Bera. Four-time All-American Luke Rynish, a three-time NCAA finalist, is gone after graduation.
Newcomer Ouachita Baptist was 15th in Pueblo and brings back all four qualifiers, including All-Americans Garrett Evans (125), Bobby Williams (157) and Dallas Smith (184).
Augustana (S.D.) was third in 2011 and 10th in 2012. The Vikings return two-time All-American Nate Herda, who did not place in 2012, but only two other qualifiers will be suited up again.