Division II Wrestling Notebook: Road to Birmingham starts this weekend
The postseason is here and this weekend features regional tournaments with the top four at each weight class qualifying for the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships, March 10-11 in Birmingham, Alabama. Each of the four Regions – Erie (Pa.), Indianapolis, Moorhead (Minn.), and Golden (Colo.) – will be as competitive as the two days in Birmingham.
For the contenders, the goal is to qualify as many wrestlers as possible; those contenders include reigning DII champion St. Cloud State, winners of the last two NCAA Championships, Notre Dame College (Ohio), Nebraska-Kearney, Maryville (Mo.), Central Oklahoma, Mercyhurst (Pa.), Pittsburgh-Johnstown, and Wisconsin-Parkside.
In other words, the NCAA Championships actually begin this weekend.
Region I – Erie, Pa.
A wide open race awaits those in Erie, Pennsylvania, as Notre Dame College (Ohio), Pittsburgh-Johnstown, and Mercyhurst (Pa.) lead the Super Region I pack that also includes upstart Wheeling Jesuit (W.V.) and Pennsylvanians Gannon, Kutztown, and Seton Hill.
Notre Dame College, under veteran head coach Frank Romano, won the 2014 NCAA Championship, and finished second to St. Cloud State last March. Former NCAA champion Garrett Lineberger, fifth in 2016 at 184 pounds, leads the Falcons, who also feature All-Americans Cobey Fehr (141) and Ivan McClay (125). Who suits up in Erie for NDC will determine if they will make a run in Birmingham.
Pittsburgh-Johnstown lost just two dual meets in 2016-17 and brings 2016 NCAA champion Tyler Reinhart (165) to Erie, along with Penn State transfer Cody Law, a junior who is undefeated at 157 pounds this season. Nick Roberts, NCAA champion at 133 pounds last March, has been out all season due to injury.
Mercyhurst (Pa.) boasts two top-ranked wrestlers in All-Americans Willie Bohince (125) and Francis Mizia (165), along with sixth-ranked All-American Andy Welton (285), all three seniors.
Wheeling Jesuit made a run at the NWCA National Duals in January, but has since cooled off. They will join Gannon, Seton Hill, and Kutztown in trying to chase down NDC, UPJ, and Mercyhurst.
The weight class to watch in Erie is 165 pounds. Mizia beat Reinhart twice this season and NDC rookie Isaiah White and Division I transfer T.C. Warner of Kutztown give Region I four of the top six 165-pounders in Division II. Warner’s only loss in 13 matches is to Mizia. There’s a good chance the national champion at 165 pounds comes from Region I.
Region II – Indianapolis
Like Region I, the gathering in Indianapolis has a number of teams capable of challenging for top honors including Ohio schools Ashland, Findlay, Tiffin, and Lake Erie College. Wisconsin-Parkside, with All-American Ronzell Darling (125) and national champion Nick Becker (174) suffered a late-season loss in its lineup – otherwise the Rangers would be the favorites in Indianapolis.
This Region features three top-ranked wrestlers – Ashland’s Michael Labry (133), Findlay’s Nic Goebel (149), and Becker. Goebel is part of a bracket that also includes second-ranked Nick Boggs of Lake Erie, No. 3 Brent Fickel of Ashland, and fifth-ranked Michael Screptock.
“You can go in as the No. 1 seed, but if you lose at the wrong time, you’re done,” said Ashland head coach Josh Hutchens, who qualified six in 2016. “This should be the year we break through and bring a lot of guys to nationals. Everyone is right on pace and on track to have the best year we’ve had since I’ve been here. Now we just have to do it.”
The Eagles are led by senior 133-pounder Michael Labry (28-1), who has finished fourth, third, and second in three NCAA appearances. The Ohio native redshirted in 2015-16.
Region III – Moorhead, Minn.
Reigning Division II king St. Cloud State leads a pack that features Missouri schools Maryville and Lindenwood, with Upper Iowa, Augustana (S.D.) and McKendree (Ill.) all ready to challenge. SCSU senior heavyweight Austin Goergen (22-0) became the Huskies’ all-time leader in pins on the final weekend of the regular season.
“I’m feeling really strong, really healthy,” said Goergen, a three-time All-American. “I’m feeling really healthy, as healthy as I have in five years so that’s pretty good to say and hopefully I can keep going from here, one match at a time and everything else will just take care of itself.”
Goergen is one of two top-ranked individuals headed to Minnesota. Maryville 141-pounder Nate Rodriguez was a two-time top-eight finisher at Ouachita Baptist before joining the Saints before the 2015-16 campaign.
Region IV – Golden, Colo.
Winners of seven Division II national titles, Central Oklahoma rebounded from a disastrous 2015-16 season to go unbeaten in dual meets under first-year head coach Todd Stiedley. UCO finished a close second to Nebraska-Kearney at the conference meet and the two will battle for top honors this weekend in Colorado. Colorado State-Pueblo, Western State (Colo.), and California Baptist will also have a say in the final standings.
“It would be awesome to cap it off with a national championship,” Stiedley said. “It would be a Cinderella season.”
Two-time All-American Jacob Waste of CBU is ranked No. 1 at 197 pounds, while UNK’s Destin McCauley, ranked No. 2 at 157 pounds, was a national champion last March. Two of McCauley’s losses this season are to Fort Hays State’s Greg Tooley (22-3), also in Colorado this weekend.
California Baptist’s Jacob Waste, Fort Hays State’s Jon Inman, and UCO’s Greg Wilson are ranked 1-2-3 at 197 pounds entering the postseason. Wilson is new to the DII postseason.
“This is my first season that I’ve gotten to the end. I’ve had injuries and eligibility issues, so I’m super excited to get out there and do what I’ve been waiting to do for four years,” said Wilson, a native of Keller, Texas. “I think momentum throughout the year has carried pretty tremendously. Guys’ attitudes, we’re a confident team and we show that when we wrestle.”
Those DI guys
Kutztown’s T.C. Warner (12-1) was a Pennsylvania state champion and suited up three times at Bloomsburg before joining the Kutztown program. Prior to Bloomsburg, Warner spent a season at Old Dominion.
Pittsburgh-Johnstown’s Cody Law, a transfer from Penn State, hopes to follow in the footsteps of Nick Roberts, a transfer from Ohio State, who won the 133-pound title in 2016 but missed this season due to injury. Law is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 at 157 pounds entering the postseason. The NCAA champion at 149 pounds in 2016, Nebraska-Kearney’s Destin McCauley, is also at 157 pounds this season. McCauley (27-6) started his collegiate career at Nebraska before becoming a Loper.
Wisconsin-Parkside’s Nick Becker (18-0), a transfer from Central Michigan, is yet to lose a match since joining the Rangers. The top-ranked 174-pounder went 41-0 last season on his way to a national title.
California Baptist senior Jacob Waste (24-3), a two-time All-American, has three losses in 27 bouts in 2016-17, all three to Division I opponents. Waste, ranked No. 1 at 197 pounds, started his career across the country at Buffalo after a high school career at Apple Valley, Minn.
In order to win four national titles and join the likes of Joey Davis, who completed his career at Notre Dame College last March with a fourth NCAA title, you have to win as a freshman. There are a few candidates entering the postseason.
● Greg Tooley (Fort Hays State, 157 pounds): A native of St. Mary’s, Kansas, Tooley (22-3) owns a pair of wins over 2016 NCAA champion Destin McCauley. The two could meet again in a Region IV matchup this weekend.
● Isaiah White (Notre Dame College, 165 pounds): From Oak Park, Illinois, White is part of a monster 165-pound weight class this weekend. Whoever finishes top four in Erie, Pennsylvania, immediately becomes an All-America candidate in Birmingham.
● Payton Tawater (Colorado Mesa, 157 pounds): Tawater, from Arvada, California, has won 17 straight matches entering the weekend. He is 28-7 with 10 pins and joins Tooley and McCauley for a Region IV slugfest.
● James Pleski (St. Cloud State, 149 pounds): From Stacy, Minnesota, Pleski is just 21-7, but part of the favored Huskies. SCSU has a way of putting rookies on the podium.
● Carmine Ciotti (Gannon, 133 pounds): A product of Erie, Pennsylvania, Ciotti (20-2) will be wrestling in his hometown this weekend. The 133-pounder has 17 bonus-point victories, including 10 pins this season and ranks among DII’s leaders in the NCAA Most Dominant Award.