The Division II Wrestling Championships are set for Friday and Saturday inside Chaifets Arena in St. Louis. Maryville (Mo.) is the host institution. Ten weight classes will feature 16 student-athletes per bracket in a double-elimination format. Friday’s competition includes the first round and quarterfinals; the semifinals are Saturday morning with the championship finals set for 8 p.m. ET Saturday. Notre Dame (Ohio) won the 2014 team title in Cleveland.
A quick history lesson
In the past 14 years, only four teams -- Penn State, Iowa, Minnesota, and Oklahoma State -- have claimed NCAA championships at the Division I level. During that same stretch in Division III, just two programs -- Wartburg and Augsburg -- have won the top prize. When it comes to Division II, five programs have won national titles since 2000.
Current DI members Cal Poly and Bakersfield, each with eight titles, sit at the top of the DII all-time list. Central Oklahoma and Omaha have each claimed seven trophies with UCO leading the pack with 38 individual championships.
The first DII national tournament was held on the campus of Northern Iowa in 1962 and won by Western State (Colo.). This weekend marks the first time the DII Championships have been held in St. Louis.
The team race … who’s it going to be?
The 2015 championships could be very competitive with as many as six or seven teams battling for top honors. The final DII Coaches Rankings have defending champion Notre Dame at No. 1 with Maryville (Mo.), Nebraska-Kearney, St. Cloud State, Mercyhurst (Pa.), Western State and Ouachita Baptist rounding out the top seven.
Winning a team title is a group effort, but it does not hurt to put people in the finals. Notre Dame will send three returning champions to St. Louis -- Jon Rivera (29-4 at 157 pounds), Joey Davis (28-0 at 174 pounds) and Garrett Lineberger (22-3 at 184 pounds). Maurice Miller, an All-American at 141 pounds two seasons ago, could also make the finals.
Host Maryville, behind program-builder Denney, has 2012 finalist Keenan Hagerty (29-2 at 149) and a trio of All-Americans from last March to contend with. Nebraska-Kearney has big point potential in 2014 champions Daniel DeShazer (35-5 at 133) and Romero Cotton (14-5 at 197), plus Keith Surber and Destin McCauley, two tough opponents who started their careers at Division I Nebraska.
Steve Costanzo’s St. Cloud State squad features top-ranked Clint Poster (36-0 at 157) and All-Americans Gabe Fogarty (25-3 at 165) and Austin Goergen (30-1 at 285). Ouachita Baptist will be a factor with veterans Garrett Evans (20-8 at 125), Josh Myers (23-3 at 141) and Dallas Smith (25-1 at 184); that trio has a combined seven All-America finishes. Sophomore 133-pounder Nate Rodriquez (29-2), seventh last March, will also be a tough out.
Expect the 2015 team race to go deep into Saturday.
The new guys
The DII landscape continues to change. The usual suspects -- St. Cloud State and Nebraska-Kearney -- are still yearly contenders, but a new group of teams are quickly climbing the ladder. Maryville is in just its fourth year of competition at the D-II level and has already finished among the top five at an NCAA Championship (third in 2014). Head coach Mike Denney, who built Omaha into a powerhouse, has his squad in position to win a title this weekend. Actually, this weekend marks the Saints’ fifth NCAA tourney; in 1967 the program scored one point at the NCAA meet hosted by Wilkes (Pa.).
Ouachita Baptist is in its fourth year of competition and ranked inside the top 10 entering this weekend. A program built by current Army head coach Kevin Ward is now in the capable hands of Chris Chionuma. The Tigers finished fourth in 2014 and return plenty of point scorers.
McKendree is ranked ninth in the final DII Coaches Poll. In its first NCAA meet, the Bearcats finished 10th at the 2014 championships. Head coach James Kisgen helped start the program from scratch in 2002.
First-year program Wheeling Jesuit finished 10-4 in dual meets in 2014-15. The Cardinals have three entries this weekend.
One should remember also that Notre Dame, the 2014 DII champions, are only in its third year of DII participation. Frank Romano’s program already has two top-five finishes.
Back for more
Eight former NCAA champions are in the field this weekend, led by Notre Dame’s Joey Davis, who is 100-0 for his career and the top man at 174 pounds. Davis, a Compton, California product, was the champion at 165 pounds in 2013 and the top dog at 174 last March. Two other Falcons -- 184-pound sophomore Garrett Lineberger and 157-pound junior Jon Rivera -- will compete for their second title.
North Carolina-Pembroke senior Daniel Ownbey brings 117 career victories into his final collegiate meet. The 141-pound champion a year ago is 29-2 and seeks his fourth All-America finish.
Frank Cagnina, a senior at Central Missouri, is the reigning 149-pound king. Cagnina, a three-time New Jersey state champion, is 20-1 in 2014-15.
And last, but certainly not least, is Kutztown’s Ziad Haddad, who is 78-5 at the DII level with a title at 285 pounds last March. Haddad is 26-0 this season.
Speaking of perfection
Five wrestlers with at least 10 matches this season bring unbeaten records into the 2015 Championships. Joining Notre Dame’s Davis and Kutztown’s Haddad is Central Oklahoma senior Chris Watson, a silver medalist in 2014 and 38-0 this season. St. Cloud State junior 157-pounder Clint Poster is 104-13 for his career, including a 36-0 mark. He is a two-time All-American.
The fifth is Newberry’s Huston Evans, a 197-pounder who is 12-0.
One more step
Watson is one of seven national finalists looking for that additional step on the ladder this weekend. Augustana (S.D.) junior T.J. North, 23-3 this season, lost in the 125-pound title bout last March. Adams State senior Jerry Huff was a finalist at 125 pounds in 2013.
Ouachita Baptist’s Josh Myers fell in the 2014 141-pound final to Ownbey, while teammate Dallas Smith advanced to the championship match in 2013 at 184 pounds. Another Smith, Julien of McKendree, is 34-4 as a senior after losing to Cotton in the 2014 finals.
Back in 2012 as a freshman, Maryville’s Keenan Hagerty lost in the 149-pound title match.
Looking for No. 4
Finishing inside the top eight at four NCAA tournaments is difficult at any level. Four wrestlers seek a fourth All-America finish this weekend. They are: 125-pounder Garrett Evans of Ouachita Baptist who has finished seventh, sixth, and seventh; Daniel Ownbey of UNC-Pembroke (third, eighth, first); Western State’s Elliot Copeland, a 174-pounder who has been fourth twice and third once; and Ouachita Baptist’s Dallas Smith (6-2-3).
Knocking at the door
Two to keep an eye on this weekend are Ashland 133-pounder Michael Labry and Colorado-Mesa 157-pounder James Martinez. Both are two-time All-Americans with Labry, a junior, sporting a 109-10 career mark (39-1 this season) and Martinez, a senior, bringing a 35-3 record into his final college tournament.
Oh, those Division I guys
The journey to national championships take different paths. Careers do not always finish where they started. A number of participants this weekend started that journey at DI institutions, including DeShazer (Oklahoma), Cagnina (Lehigh) and Haddad (North Carolina), all former champions.
Others with a little DI on their résumé are: Nebraska-Kearney’s Keith Surber (Nebraska) and Destin McCauley (Nebraska), Shippensburg’s Cameron Throckmorton (North Carolina), Kutztown’s Matt Martoccio (Lock Haven), California-Baptist’s Jacob Waste (Buffalo), Newberry’s Huston Evans (Virginia Tech) and Pittsburgh-Johnstown’s Sam Hanau (Central Michigan).
Odds are most, if not all, will finish among the top eight in St. Louis this weekend.