Division III Wrestling Championships: Wartburg College takes home the crown
CEDAR RAPIDS, -- Eric Keller and his Wartburg College wrestling team could joke in the months after being denied its fifth consecutive Division III national title last March in Hershey, Pa. that nobody was allowed to eat a Hershey product or say the word.
But deep down a fire was burning in the pits of the Knights stomachs. Finishing second was not sitting well with Wartburg, who saw its rival Augsburg claim its 12th national title in 2015.
Since that stinging defeat Keller's mantra was repeated over and over in the Knights' room, 'Dig deep, and then dig deeper.'
This past Friday and Saturday at the U.S. Cellular Center at the 2016 Division III championships Wartburg showed just how deep it was willing to dig as the Knights ran away with their 12th Division III title and fifth in six years.
The Knights crowned just one champ, but had four runner-ups and eight all-Americans outdistancing a game Messiah College, 129.5 to 100, for the title.
"The challenge was this let's dig as deep as we got to dig to do what we got to do and it means doing more," Keller said. "Maximize your opportunities and put an exclamation on things and that is exactly what we did.
"It feels really good. There is no such thing as an easy national championship. These guys ... wrestling is a lifestyle and the sacrifices these guys make ... when it pays off it is rewarding and there is nothing like it."
Kenny Martin was Wartburg's only champion as he topped Trevor Engle of Cornell College 7-5, to win his second consecutive 149-pound title.
Drew Wagenhoffer at 157, Nicholas Michael at 165, Eric DeVos at 174 and Gerard Roman at 197 all lost championship matches by a combined seven points.
"It is always hard when you lose championship matches," Keller said. "Guys want to win individual national championships. It is tough when you lose those in the end like that. You're personally invested in each and every one of those guys and when they lose like that it tears your heart out.
"But it was still outstanding effort by every single guy. Even the guys tonight, they fought their butts off and that is what we talk about."
Although it was rolling, Wartburg was never allowed to feel like the title was firmly in its grasp because Messiah was practically matching the Knights win for win.
The Falcons crowned two champions - Lucas Malmberg at 125 and Ben Swarr at 174, the later whom won on his 20th birthday, and placed six of their seven qualifiers on the all-American podium,
The Falcons got 11 backside wins from Larry Cannon, fourth at 157, Jeff Hojanacki, sixth at 165, Kyle Koser at 197 and Jason Wright, sixth at 285.
Messiah also had Josh Thomsen finish second as he closed his career as a four-time all-American.
"Wartburg is tough and kept coming through. We have all the respect in the world for those guys," said Swarr. "This is going to be the highest finish that Messiah's ever had .... we all showed up and peaked at the right time.
"We responded to what the coaches were telling us, and I just can't give my teammates enough credit. We just really showed up today and last night as well."
The 100 points the Falcons scored would've won the national title 11 times since 1979. The runner-up trophy is the highest in school history and third time in three years Messiah has finished in the top six counting a third in 2014.
Malmberg after back-to-back runner-up finishes at 125, left little doubt decking Central's C.J. Pestano 14-6.
"It is a good feeling, a big relief to come here and finally take it home," said Malmberg who had lost to Augsburg's Mike Fuenffinger in the 125 finals in 2014 and 2015.
It wouldn't be a Division III championship without a surprising victor, either. Unseeded Devin Broukal of Wabash topped New York University's Nathan Pike, 8-5, to win at 133, becoming the first unseeded national champion since Devin Biscaha of Springfield won the 157 title in 2013.
"It feels surreal for me," Broukal said. "The way I look at it, what my dad has always told me, is whomever gets me is they got the bad draw. I knew I could win it. I had to stay mentally tough. It is all a state of mind."
Another notable champion is David Welch of Roger Williams. Welch's 5-4 victory over Wartburg's Gerard Roman in the 197 final gave the Hawks their first national champion in school history.
Then there was Wabash's Riley Lefever whose 12-4 win over Messiah's Thomsen in the 184 final made him just the 16th three-time national champion in Division III history. The junior will try to join Augsburg's Marcus LeVesseur next year as the only four-time champs.
"I had a lot of fun and I went out there and wrestled well. It was awesome," Lefever said.
"I think the work will speak for itself come next year," Lefever said of chasing four titles. "I'm just going to keep working and wrestling, improving."