CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - The Wartburg ship was steady as usual when it counted during Saturday's first session.
The Knights held an 18.5 point lead against Messiah (Pa.) when wrestling started this morning and wrapped up a fourth consecutive Division III Championship with only Saturday's finals remaining inside the U.S. Cellular Center. With four in the finals and six total All-Americans, the Knights tied Augsburg with a Division III-leading 11 national team titles.
"It feels good, feels real good," first-year head coach Eric Keller said. "It is a culmination of an entire season that's come together. So proud of these guys, the way they have wrestled this entire tournament.
"We've got four guys tonight wrestling titles, which is very exciting."
Messiah, a program that has never finished higher than ninth at an NCAA championship, tried to make a race of it early Saturday.Freshman Lucas Malmberg got Messiah off to a good start, rallying to beat Wartburg's Gilberto Camacho 5-4 in the 125-pound semifinals. A late second-period reversal and a decisive third-period takedown in the final 15 seconds provided the difference and, if only temporarily, brought thoughts of a team race.
"I was just looking for one [point] late in the second, but I hit that standing granby [roll] and came out behind him… it was a bit lucky, I'll admit," said Malmberg, who takes a 46-3 record into Saturday's finals where he will face Augsburg's Mike Fuenffinger (33-3). "I refused to tell myself I was tired [in the third period] and just kept going hard. I needed a takedown to go to the finals and I wasn't going to stop until I got it."
Messiah drew to within 12.5 points of the leaders when 141-pounder Kaleb Loht, now 47-1, punched his ticket to the finals with a decisive victory against unseeded Michael Ferende of Johnson & Wales (R.I.). However, the reigning Division III champions regained control of the race with semifinal victories by Cole Welter at 165 pounds, 2012 champion Landon Williams, who beat Messiah's Ricardo Plummer at 174 pounds, and Ryan Fank at 285 pounds. Two-time champion Kenny Anderson moved into the finals earlier with a major decision in the 133-pound semifinals. Senior 197-pounder Punahele Soriano is Keller's sixth All-American.
"For me, I have been at Wartburg for 13 years, so everything that I do comes from what I've learned from coach [Jim] Miller during that time," said Keller, who helped Miller retire in style in 2013. "I wasn't going to come in here and make a bunch of changes or try and mix things up. I am a big believer in what [Miller] has installed the last 20-something years.
"My goal is to continue to do that."
The 2013-14 class of seniors won four NCAA titles, four National Duals titles, and never lost a conference dual meet.
The shocker of Saturday's first session came at 285 pounds where Loras sophomore James Buss ended Chad Johnson's quest for a third title. The Augsburg senior entered the weekend at 33-1; last March, Buss, a Chicago native, lost to Johnson in the semifinals on his way to a fourth-place finish.
"It hasn't sunk in yet, and my job isn't done here yet," said Buss, who will take a 26-3 record into Saturday's finals matchup against Wartburg's Ryan Fank. "I was pretty upset by being seeded fourth. I missed pretty much the entire first half of the season with injuries and not being able to make weight. Coming in here, I figured I took fourth last year so I shouldn't go any lower than that.
"Last year I think I had more of a freshman thing going against the returning champion and predicted winner. Last year's loss really drove me."
Fourteen schools will be represented on the big state Saturday with only three -- Wartburg, Messiah, and Wisconsin-Whitewater -- suiting up more than one.
Like Wartburg's Anderson, Nazar Kulchytskyy (41-2) is one win away from three national titles. The Wisconsin-Oshkosh senior beat Wartburg senior Brett Yonkovic 5-3 on Friday night and Wabash's Reece Lefever 3-2 on Saturday morning. The Ukrainian will face off with Coe's Dmitri Boyer in Saturday's 157-pound title bout. Anderson gets Ithaca's Alex Gomez, who is 30-3 in 2013-14.
Illinois' Elmhurst, the runner-up in the 2013 team race with a pair of champions, has a chance at another title when senior Ryan Prater takes the mat Saturday evening. The two-time Division I qualifier for Illinois pinned Wilkes' Mark Hartenstine in the semifinals and will face Cortland State's Robert Dierna (26-3), who won a marathon semifinal against John Carroll's Daniel Mirman.
Elmhurst head coach Steve Marianetti guided Division I transfer Mike Benefiel to the 197-pound title. Benefiel beat Cornell College's Alex Coolidge on the big stage; Coolidge, a senior this season, gets another shot when he faces Wisconsin-Whitewater sophomore Shane Siefert (41-4) on Saturday.
Wabash 184-pounder Riley Lefever kept his perfect rookie campaign intact, beating Williams' Christopher Chorzepa in the semifinals. Lefever (37-0) gets TCNJ's Brian Broderick (18-3) tonight.
One unseeded entry, Waynesburg's Anthony Bonaventura, beat the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds on his march to the finals where he gets Wartburg's Landon Williams, fourth last March after winning a title in 2012.