March 10, 2010

By John Fey

Special to

OMAHA, Neb. - Nebraska-Omaha 133-pounder Cody Garcia was grocery shopping when it hit him: This weekend will be the final time he'll wrestle in college.

"It was kind of emotional for me," Garcia said. "It was one of those moments that came into perspective. I realized the end was coming soon."

Garcia and the other nine Nebraska-Omaha qualifiers will hope for a happy end to the season when they take the mats at home Friday and Saturday for the NCAA Division II National Wrestling Championships.

Action at Sapp Fieldhouse on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha begins at 11 a.m. (CST) Friday, and the second session begins at 6 p.m. Saturday's morning session starts at 10 a.m., and the finals are set to go off at 8 p.m.

Nebraska-Omaha is the only team in the field that qualified all 10 of its wrestlers. Garcia headlines a Maverick squad that hopes to repeat as national champions.

Garcia is seeking his third national title. That would make him the fourth Nebraska-Omaha wrestler to do that, and he would become the school's 10th four-time All-American.

Sapp Fieldhouse likely will be a hostile environment for the visiting wrestlers. That's just fine with Nebraska-Omaha coach Mike Denney.

"We want to create an atmosphere that's exciting for our guys, really for everybody involved," said Denney, who is in his 31st year as the winningest wrestling coach in Nebraska-Omaha history. "We want this to be a positive thing in the community and fan friendly for everybody involved."

The Mavericks, ranked No. 1 in Division II all season, are shooting for their sixth title under Denney. He knows it's not automatic, and he also understands what it takes to get it done.

"We have a nice team," Denney said. "We had all of our guys finish in the top three at regionals. Our guys are wrestling well right now.

"But, you know what? You've still got to do it."

Another Maverick hungry for a national title in his final season is 197-pounder Jacob Marrs. He was oh-so-close last year, losing 3-2 to Keeno Griffin of Newberry College in the 197-pound final.

Marrs said the sting of that defeat hasn't gone away, and he aims for a feel-good finale.

"There's no doubt in my mind that I'll be the national champion," he said, "as long as I leave everything that I've got and everything I bring onto the mat."

The Mavericks missed out on a perfect season, stumbling just once - an 18-12 upset to Division III Augsburg (Minn.) College on Jan. 22. Denney shouldered the blame, even though two of his top wrestlers didn't compete.

"Sometimes (a loss) can really bring you into focus," Denney said. "I really over-trained our guys for that week. They were tired."

Marrs, looking back on that loss, said it shouldn't have happened.

"That was not a better team," Marrs said. "You've got to give them credit, but I still think we kind of gave them that one a little bit."

But talk about a rebound. Nebraska-Omaha went on a roll the rest of the way and hasn't looked back. Still, Garcia and his teammates realize a repeat national team title won't be easy.

If he's feeling any pressure for another individual crown, Garcia didn't show it five days before his final tournament.

"I'm trying to stay positive in my mind that I'm the best wrestler there," he said. "I'm going to perform and wrestle my match. As long as I do that, I'll be all right. I've got to be thinking about winning, not losing."

While Garcia is getting pretty much all of the attention from the local media, the Nebraska-Omaha coach said Marrs' 197-pound bracket should be interesting. A matchup with Newberry's Griffin is likely.

"I'll tell you what," the coach said, "his weight class is tough. He's got some great challenges, but I think he's up to it. I think he feels like he's at his best."

Marrs will have two special people rooting for him: wife Kacia and daughter Gracelyn. It's not easy to juggle the demands of school, wrestling and helping raise a family, but Marrs credits Kacia for her role.

"We just do what we can to make it work," he said. "She's great."

Sapp Fieldhouse no doubt will be rocking Friday and Saturday. Marrs and Garcia said when the action begins, they'll be pretty much oblivious.

"Once you're out on the mats, everything kind of blurs out," Garcia said. "It's just you out there. It can maybe bring a little anxiety for some people if you don't approach it right before hand."