Joey Davis.
Notre Dame (Ohio) Athletics
Joey Davis.
ST. LOUIS -- When you are the top dog, the man to beat, the one with the target on your back, you had better be ready when the whistle blows. There is a certainty when you are a defending champion: you are going to get everybody’s best effort.

Eight NCAA champions took the mat Friday morning at the 2015 NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships inside Chaifetz Arena. Not all of them survived.

Notre Dame (Ohio)’s Garrett Lineberger, the champion at 174 pounds last March, was pinned by Limestone senior Caleb Rivera at the 4:51 mark of their first round bout. It was Lineberger’s fourth loss in 26 matches this season. Rivera, a senior from Grandville, Mich., started his career at North Idaho College and brought a 14-9 mark into Friday.
The other seven former champions advanced by various means.

Lineberger’s teammate, junior Joey Davis, a two-time champion, opened with a slick ankle pick and cruised to a 14-5 major decision of Chadron State’s Caleb Copeland. The Compton, Calif., native improved to 105-0 for his career.

“Number one is just a number. You can lose at any time,” Davis said. “Being number one keeps me on my toes at all times. I know I have to be ready because everybody is going to come after me. When you have a target on your back you know you have to work hard.”

Notre Dame’s two other returning champs, Romero Cotton and Jon Rivera, each picked up comfortable decisions in their opening bouts.

2015 Division II Wrestling Championship
Moore: Huskies make program history with team effort
Final: SCSU, Prescott win championship Recap
Moore: Rivalry rematch for chance at title
Moore: Surber and McCauley find home at UNK
Day 1: St. Cloud State leads Results Recap
Moore: Defending champs have target on their backs
Moore: Ten things to know in advance of championship
Brackets Qualifiers
Central Missouri’s Frank Cagnina (21-1) flattened Lake Erie’s Zach Vargo in a 149-pound first rounder. Cagnina, a former qualifier at the Division I level for Lehigh, was the champ at 149 last season.

Three who have tasted gold battled their way through the opening session.

Kutztown’s Ziad Haddad, the top man at heavyweight in 2014, remained unbeaten with tough 4-0 decision of Colorado-Pueblo’s Niko Bogojevic.

“I like having the target on your back,” said Haddad (27-0) on Thursday afternoon. “When you step on the mat you get everybody’s best shot. Nobody ever takes you lightly, nobody ever overlooks you.”

Nebraska-Kearney’s Daniel DeShazer, a champion in 2013 and finalist last March, needed a third period takedown to edge St. Cloud State’s Mike Rhone 5-3 at 133 pounds. UNC Pembroke senior Daniel Ownbey, in search of a fourth All-America finish and second straight national title, needed overtime to beat Fort Hays State’s Noah Killip at 141 pounds.

“It’s just another tournament to be honest,” said Ownbey, who takes a 30-2 mark into tonight’s quarterfinals. “I know it’s nationals, but you can’t put too much pressure on yourself. It’s just another day, another tournament. You have to treat it like any other 16-man bracket, another tournament.”

What Friday’s first session also provided was the opening salvo to a very competitive two days. Maryville (Mo.) went a perfect 7-0 to open the tournament and will take a narrow three-point lead over McKendree, Mercyhurst, Nebraska-Kearney, and Ouachita Baptist into Friday night’s second session. Mercyhurst and UNK each went 6-1 in the opening round. Ouachita Baptist only pushed three into the quarterfinals, but had a pair of pins and a major decision to start. Notre Dame, the team champion in 2014, split eight matches and sits in eighth place.

Frank Cagnina.
Central Missouri Athletics
Frank Cagnina.
Maryville got a spark from 157-pounder Greg Hegarty, who had a late regulation takedown overturned after a video review but rebounded with an overtime takedown in a second overtime to beat Nebraska-Kearney’s Chase White 4-2.

Tipping the scale
The tournament’s first surprise happened two hours before anybody took the mat. Western State senior 174-pounder Elliot Copeland, a three-time All-American and one of two-time champion Joey Davis’ top challengers, failed to make weight. Copeland’s error was Pittsburgh-Johnstown’s gain. The Mountain Cats’ John Blankenship received three points for the “win” to give his squad the early lead.

Kudos
St. Louis’ Chaifetz Arena, home of the Saint Louis Billikens, has been getting plenty of praise from coaches, student-athletes, and fans. A 10,000-seat venue, it opened in 2008.

“When I walked into the arena [Wednesday] I thought to myself this is what we’ve been missing in Division II,” St. Cloud State head coach Steve Costanzo said during Thursday’s press conference. “This is what our athletes at the Division II level deserve. I am excited that our guys get the opportunity to compete in a venue like this.”

Mercyhurst boss Mike Wehler echoed everybody else’s sentiments and also thinks the venue might just be setting a new standard for host sites and Division II championships.
Much of the praise due goes to Maryville (Mo.) head coach Mike Denney, who was instrumental in bringing the event to St. Louis.​