CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A quick mention of the wrestling team at Notre Dame (Ohio) produces a quick chuckle from Chad Smith, the head coach at Lindenwood in Missouri.
The two schools built a strong rivalry when they were both in the NAIA. The chuckle was almost as if to say, “Hello, old friend.”
Now, in Lindenwood‘s first year as a full member in NCAA DII, Notre Dame and Lindenwood have surfaced as title contenders for a national championship on the NCAA level.Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 in the latest ranking by the DII Wrestling Coaches Association. Lindenwood was No. 3.
“Yeah, we wrestled them quite a bit back in the NAIA,” Smith said, laughing softly. “That’s a renewed rivalry, I guess.”
And it is a rivalry of respect between two NCAA newbies. Notre Dame qualified a tournament-high nine wrestlers for the Div. II Wrestling championships, which begin a two-day run Friday at Cleveland Public Hall. The Falcons are in just their second year of NCAA membership.
Lindenwood is one of four teams that qualified seven.
“They’re a threat in this tournament,” Notre Dame coach Frank Romano said of his rival. “They are a real threat to win this tournament.
They’re a tough team. They won national championships in NAIA. When we were in the NAIA, we were huge rivals of theirs and vice versa.”
Indeed, meeting up with an old rival will punch up the energy level even more for Lindenwood’s wrestlers, who are already drummed up with the possibility of winning the school’s first NCAA wrestling championship the first time they’re in the tournament.
“To be honest, the rivalries and the competition is what makes it fun,”
Smith said. “It adds that extra something special. You want to compete that much harder because those are the guys you don’t want to lose to more than anybody else.”
But before the national trophy is handed off to Notre Dame or Lindenwood, there is a team from Nebraska that is certain to have some serious say in the matter. Nebraska-Kearney has won the last two national championships and brings six wrestlers to Cleveland, including four 2013 All-Americans. Among them: Daniel DeShazer, a sophomore who won the 133-pound national title as a freshman, and Romero Cotton, who is ranked No. 1 at 197 pounds.
In fact, teams from Nebraska have won the last six national team championships. Kearney has won three times, and Nebraska-Omaha had a three-year title run from 2009 to 2011.
Kearney, coached by Marc Bauer, is ranked No. 2.
Notre Dame’s group includes defending champions Joey Davis, a sophomore at 174 pounds who hasn’t lost a match in two college seasons, and Eric Burgey, who is ranked No. 1 at 165 pounds.
Also in the mix for a national title is Newberry (S.C.), which qualified eight for nationals. Among them is B.J. Young at 141 pounds.
He is just the fifth wrestler in Newberry history to qualify for the national championships all four years and his 140 career wins are three short of an all-time school record.
While Notre Dame has the most qualifiers and Newberry is No. 2, another 10 schools have at least six qualified wrestlers. Five teams have qualified five.
“The way things have gone, it just makes it a 10-team race. You don’t know,” Newberry coach Jason Valek said. “Some of the first-round matchups are just stud versus stud, which is exciting. Some of the favorites have kids that could get knocked off.
“You just throw it in a hat and whoever shows up the next two days will walk away with it.”
And that hat is changing. In addition to Lindenwood, other first-timers at the championships include California Baptist, which enters Division II for the first time after winning the NWCA national championship in 2012. The Lancers are coached by Lennie Zalesky, a three-time All-American at Iowa. James Kisgen, a former assistant coach at Lindenwood, is head coach at McKendree, which qualified six wrestlers for its second year in the NCAA after moving over from NAIA. Indianapolis, which is ranked No. 4 nationally, won its first NCAA regional championship this year.
“A lot of teams have moved from NAIA to [NCAA] II in wrestling,” Romano said, noting that many of the schools that were doing well in NAIA are still doing well in NCAA Div. II after making the move.
“The division is growing,” he said. It’s a great sport. Like I always tell everybody, it’s a big country. Lots of competitors, lots of people who want to be athletes.”
“With the way the new teams coming in and competing this year, every year Division II is getting stronger,” Smith said. “Hopefully, we have a shot at doing something great.”