March 6, 2010

By Nick Finch

Special to

CEDAR RAPIDS - For many of the wrestlers who pulled off major upsets in the first two rounds of the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships, just thinking about wrestling kept them up late on Friday night.

"It was very nerve racking but very good," said Matt Ulrich. The junior from Southern Maine came into the 141-pound class unranked but he won twice on Friday, including a victory over a No. 2 seed to make the semifinals.

Championship bouts will begin at 8pm ET Saturday at the U.S. Cellular Center.

Ulrich is one of the three unseeded student-athletes to make the final four in the 141. "Everyone is just as good as everyone else. It is just mental now." Ulrich said he took a year off of college to work on training and maturity and believes he is benefiting from that approach now.

Ulrich won't have to knock off a highly-ranked opponent next. Ithaca's Jeremy Stierly is on the other side of the bracket. Stierly, a sophomore, knocked off No. 6 and No. 3 seeds by scores of 11-10 and 2-1, respectively to earn his spot in the semifinals.

This is Stierly's first trip to the national championship. He admitted he had early nerves but once he found his place on the mat, he settled in.

"Once I got past that first match, it was like whatever happens will happen," said Stierly. "My goal will be to be an All-American and I've done that so far." Steirly said a "big nap" after the opening match was his only easy rest.

After Stierly survived his quarterfinal match, with blood dripping from his nose and cuts bleeding on his forehead, sleep and rest became much more difficult.

"Yeah, I was tossing and turning," he admitted before his semifinal match Saturday morning. "Every time I was thinking about wrestling, I couldn't fall asleep. So I counted as many numbers as I could."

Wartburg's Matt Kelly was the final unseeded qualifier for the 141-pound semifinals. Kelly's journey was also marked by close wins. He faced a tall order for his match, No. 1 seed and defending champion Myanganbayar Batsukh of St. John's (Minn.). Batsukh carries himself as cool as a cucumber. In 2008-09, he also rode out upsets to becoming a national champion.

Kelly said he doesn't read too much into rankings and the 141 class backs that up.

"Especially at this tournament, that's what happens usually," said Kelly.

The 184-pound weight class also featured a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed getting knocked out before the semifinals. Johnson & Wales junior Brennan Ward, a No. 8 seed, defeated Tyler Burkle of Coe by fall in the quarterfinals. Soon after, unseeded Josh Wake of Oneonta State held off No. 2 seed Ben Engelland of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Wake already had the NCAA experience from the previous season. But it was a short run on the mats as Wake lost both of his 2008-09 matches.

Once Wake realized exactly what he had pulled off on Friday and that he was just two victories from becoming a national champion, the evening really dragged on.

"My adrenaline was pretty pumped up," said Wake before his semifinal match. "It took a while to fall asleep. The wrestling keeps running through your head as you are trying to get away from it all."

Wake said he had family from New York along for the tournament and that made it easier once he earned his spot in the final four. "The first thing I did was hug my father up in the stands and they made all of the phone calls to my friends and family and got us all excited," said Wake.

Out of the 10 weight classes, three No. 1 seeds went down between the first round and the quarterfinals. Stierly said there can be an advantage to wrestling under the radar.

"Some of these No. 1 seeds go down because there is so much pressure on them," Stierly said. "You can't think too far ahead. Think of it like a dual meet."

An hour later, Stierly won a 3-0 decision over Ulrich to make the 141-pound finals.

And when asked about the possibility that he could walk out of Cedar Rapids as a national champion?

"I can't believe the position I'm in right now," he said.

This lack of sleep isn't just for the unseeded wrestlers. After winning his semifinal match early Saturday morning over Kelly and Batsukh admitted that even a defending champion had a hard time sleeping.

"I was up by 4:30 in the morning," Batsukh said with a shrug.