March 13, 2010

By John Fey

Special to

OMAHA, Neb. - Intensity. Emotion. Excitement.

And that was just from among the standing-room-only crowd at Nebraska-Omaha's Sapp Fieldhouse during Friday's opening rounds of the NCAA Division II wrestling tournament.

The action on the six mats held even more. By the end of the day, the University of Nebraska at Omaha placed itself in position to win a second straight national championship and seventh in school history.

The host team suffered a couple of minor disappointments the opening day but still advanced seven wrestlers into Saturday's championship semifinal and another in the consolation round. Nebraska-Omaha piled up 57 points to enjoy a 25.5-point cushion over second-place St. Cloud (Minn.) State University.

"We lost a couple of matches," Mavericks' coach Mike Denney said. "That was disappointing. I thought we had a good shot at 10 All-Americans."

The two Friday sessions drew 4,234 boisterous fans. Saturday's championship semifinals and consolation matches begin at 10 a.m. (CST). Third-, fifth- and seventh-places will be determined in that third session. The championship finals go off at 8 p.m.

Season-long No. 1 Nebraska-Omaha had just two casualties on Friday - Aaron Denson at 174 pounds and Austin Boehm at 184.

Cody Garcia, the Mavericks' top-ranked 133-pounder, cruised through his first two matches, opening with a 42-second pin over Joseph Morrison of Nebraska-Kearney. He later won by fall in 2 minutes over Upper Iowa's Kyle Pedretti.

"I was able to get out there and wrestle my matches and conserve some energy, which is nice," Garcia said after improving to 47-0.

The Mavericks' two-time national champ needs only a win Saturday over Corey Bowers of Gannon University to reach another title match. Garcia said he tried not to pay much attention to Bowers when he wrestled just before him in the quarterfinals. Bowers pinned Naveed Bagheri of San Francisco State in 5:33 in his quarterfinal bout.

"I almost didn't want to watch it," Garcia said. "But he wrestled a good kid. I'm not going to look into it too much. I've still got one match (Saturday) before I have to worry about anybody on the other side of the bracket. I'll let them fight it out."

Denney was surprised to see his standout 133-pounder breeze through his first two matches.

"He's sharp," Denney said. "Really, if you take the overall performances today, it's a pretty good day."

Nebraska-Omaha 197-pounder Jacob Marrs also wasn't tested in his first two matches, winning 11-2 over Dusty Vliem of the University of Mary (Bismark, N.D.) and scoring a 15-0 technical fall over North Carolina-Pembroke's Shane Nolan.

Marrs, seeking a rematch with Newberry (S.C.) College's Keeno Griffin in the 197 final, said the crowd and the action on the mats helped him prepare mentally.

"I was getting into the matches," Marrs said. "That (crowd) was awesome. It was great. Somebody asked me what's my favorite time of the year. This is my favorite time of the year."

Garcia, who could become one the most decorated wrestlers in Nebraska-Omaha history, said he's thrilled to see so many teammates still alive heading into Saturday.

"For us to get this many into the semis is remarkable," he said. "It's quite an accomplishment, and we should be proud of it. But at the same time, we're not going to settle for it. We've got high expectations for our team."
Garcia's coach offered some common sense advice for his team after Friday's long opening day.

"I want them to just relax tonight," Denney said. "I want them to get a good night's sleep."

Denney, who has built a dynasty at Nebraska-Omaha, said his athletes are hungry for more accolades.

"These guys really want to do well as a team," he said. "They really can do it. But tomorrow we wrestle four rounds. We've only wrestled two so far."

Garcia said he and his teammates are up to the final challenge of the season.

"We're confident in our ability," he said, "and we set some goals and we expected to reach them. But it's the national tournament, and to get 10 guys through, that's all you can ask for."