The 2015 Division III Championships hit the mats Friday inside the Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Regional qualifiers two weekends ago punched the tickets for 180 wrestlers, who will compete across 10 weight classes. Each bracket consists of 18 entries with the championship finals set for Saturday night. This season marks just the third time the DIII Championships have been held in Pennsylvania -- the first DIII tournament was held at Wilkes in 1974 with the 2002 event also at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Wartburg is the defending champion.
Any narrative concerning Division III wrestling starts with the two ’Burgs -- Iowa’s Wartburg and Minnesota’s Augsburg. Wartburg won a fourth consecutive DIII title last March to move its total to 11 and forge a tie with Augsburg, the only other program to claim top honors in DIII since Ithaca in 1994. Do the math and, incredibly, either the Knights or Auggies have won the DIII title for 20 consecutive seasons.
Augsburg still holds a slim lead in individual NCAA championships at 44; Wartburg boasts 41.
How did they do that?
Entering the 2015 championships, Wartburg is again ranked No. 1. Head coach Eric Keller did not take time to rebuild, he simply reloaded after losing national champions Kenny Anderson, Cole Welter and Landon Williams, along with finalist Ryan Fank and two other All-Americans. This season’s group had a school-record seven champions at the Central Regional and qualified nine for Hershey.
“It says a lot about how our guys were unknown and unranked at the beginning of the season and how our development all year has progressed to where we are today,” Keller said after his team’s regional title.
Sophomore Andrew Siefert (16-3) is seeded No. 1 at 165 pounds, sophomore Connor Campo (24-4) is seeded third at 133 pounds and senior Brandon Welter (20-7 at 174) and junior Ben Nagle (27-2 at 285) are seeded fourth. For the Knights to win a record fifth consecutive title and DIII-best 12th, a few unknowns will have to become knowns this weekend.
A new batch of contenders
A different program has finished as bridesmaid three consecutive seasons. In 2014 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it was Wisconsin-Whitewater 36.5 points behind Wartburg. Elmhurst was second by 21 points in 2013, with Augsburg 55 points back in 2012 at La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Of course the field would like to add Wartburg to that list in 2015. So, who is it going to be?
The latest NWCA Division III Poll lists Wabash College as No. 2, with Wisconsin-Whitewater, Messiah and Delaware Valley rounding out the top five.
Wisconsin-Whitewater, runner-up in 2014, is led by 2014 finalist Shane Siefert. Delaware Valley, who tied for sixth last March, has a pair of talented seniors in Vince Fava (23-3 at 149) and Aaron Karns (29-3 at 197).
Messiah has a trio of All-American stars in Lucas Malmberg (37-2 at 125), Kaleb Loht (35-0 at 141) and Josh Thomson (40-5 at 174). If a few more Falcons take flight in Hershey, a team title could be in the cards. Same goes for Wabash, who could improve drastically from a program-best ninth place finish in 2014. Reece Lefever (19-1 at 157), Connor Lefever (16-1 at 174) and Riley Lefever (16-0 at 184) will most likely contribute.
Back for more
Three of the 10 champions from 2014 return in Augsburg’s Mike Fuenffinger, Messiah’s Kaleb Loht and Wabash’s Riley Lefever.
Fuenffinger, a senior who won the 125-pound title last March, brings a 29-1 mark into this weekend. He has 106 career victories. Loht is 35-0 this season after going 48-1 in 2013-14 and claiming the 141-pound crown. Loht, a senior, has compiled a 152-12 career record with an incredible 83-1 mark in the past two campaigns. Lefever, a sophomore 184-pounder, is unbeaten in 16 matches this season and 57-0 for his college career.
Seeing is believing
Check the résumé of Baldwin Wallace 125-pounder Jesse Gunter and you will be impressed. As a freshman he was 29-2. Gunter -- an Akron, Ohio, native -- followed that up with a third place medal at the 2014 DIII Championships, finishing 34-5 as a sophomore. He was named a NWCA Scholar Athlete with a 3.3 grade-point-average. Gunter takes a 25-3 record into this weekend’s competition and is the No. 3 seed.
It should be mentioned that Gunter has not let the fact that he is blind hinder his mat career.
Undefeated seasons are few and far between. Among those trying to finish 2014-15 unblemished with Messiah’s Loht, Wabash’s Lefever and Augsburg’s Longendyke are Nathan Giorgio of the United States Coast Guard Academy, who is 38-0 at 133 pounds, and Washington & Jefferson’s Nick Carr, who is 23-0 at 157 pounds. Carr, who started his career at Division I Kent State, lost in the 165-pound finals last March. Longendyke started his college days at Nebraska.
Men of 40
Forty wins requires a full schedule and an injury-free season. Five student-athletes have reached that plateau in 2014-15: Ryan Flynn (York [Pa.], 41-9 at 133); Ty Herzog (Roger Williams, 40-13 at 157); CJ Caserta (Stevens Institute, 41-7 at 165); Sam Guidi (Waynesburg, 40-4 at 165); and Josh Thomson (Messiah, 40-5 at 174). A handful, with a win or two this weekend, will hit the 40 mark.