ST. LOUIS -- Sometimes a 20-year-old just needs a hug.
Keith Surber and Destin McCauley each received a big one from their head coach following quarterfinal victories on Friday night at the 2015 NCAA Division II Championships inside Chaiftez Arena.
Surber, a native of nearby O’Fallon, Illinois, did not lace up a pair of wrestling shoes for the better part of two years. After a short stay at Nebraska, something wasn’t right. Depression, doctors and questions of ever wrestling again crept into Surber’s head.
A phone call from Nebraska-Kearney head coach Marc Bauer changed things.
“There are kids out there in this tournament from every school that have struggled in different ways,” said Bauer, now in his 15th year at UNK. “The bottom line is that their past has made it to where they come to us with a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, a lot of things that have not gone right for them. We sit down immediately and build a level of trust with these guys, because they trust nobody after a lot of the things they’ve been through. They’ve been thrown away, beat on, talked about in a negative light.
“This sport is about relationships. And we are in the business of developing young men. Both [Surber and McCauley] are Division I level talent, but being a student-athlete takes more than just having talent. It means a lot to see these guys having success.”
Competing in front of rowdy crowds in big-time wrestling events is nothing new to McCauley. He was on everybody’s radar during his days at Apple Valley High School in Minnesota. A five-time state champion, he added a national freestyle title and competed at the 2012 Junior World Championships in Thailand.
After two years at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, rumors had McCauley, now 22 years old, attending a number of schools. He ended up in Lincoln for the fall semester of 2013.
During Friday’s first session McCauley edged Notre Dame’s Andrew Bannister 3-2 to set up an anticipated matchup with two-time All-American Keenan Hagerty, the top-ranked 149-pounder with a 30-2 record. The atmosphere was extra intense with the Lopers and home-standing Maryville two of the tournament favorites.
Tied at 1-1 early in third period the two rolled and twisted through as good a scramble as you will see at any level. The flurry, initiated by a McCauley takedown attempt, was difficult even for the officials to score, leading to an extended video review. Officials ruled no points and overtime ensued where McCauley stepped inside a side headlock and secured a slick takedown for a 3-1 victory.
“I don’t even know what I did to get that [winning] takedown,” admitted McCauley, who takes a 25-7 record into tomorrow’s semifinals. Reflecting on his journey to Kearney, McCauley said, “I feel like I’ve found a home. I’ve been all around and it feels like a family at [Nebraska-Kearney].”
Surber’s 16-7 quarterfinal victory over 2014 finalist Josh Myers of Ouachita Baptist was a surprise to many. Not to Bauer and Surber, a wrestler with 181 career high school victories.
“I had a real tough time,” said Surber following his dominating quarterfinal win. “I got mono[nucleosis] while I was at Nebraska and the doctors said that affected my brain in some way and led to depression. I spent the last two years at home just trying to get my head back and then I got a call from Coach Bauer asking me if I wanted to wrestle anymore. It was the right choice for me because he is a great motivator, someone who cares about more than just wrestling.
“Compared to where I was three or four months ago, it felt good out there tonight.”
“I told both guys after they walked off the mat to ‘think where you were one year ago and how far they’ve come through the work they’ve put in,’ ” Bauer said.
In regards to determining the team champion this weekend, there is more than enough work to do. All the pre-tournament contenders took hits on the first day.
Defending champion Notre Dame went 4-4 in the first session, then took two more big losses in the quarterfinals when 133-pounder Sam White faded in the third period of an 8-4 loss to Maryville’s Dakota Bauer and All-American Maurice Miller dropped a 1-0 decision to Elite 89 Award winner Corbin Bennetts of Western State at 141 pounds.
National champions Joey Davis (30-0) and Jon Rivera (31-4) survived the first day unscathed.
Nebraska-Kearney, in search of its fourth title since 2008, pushed five into the semifinals. Joining Surber and McCauley were 2013 champion Daniel DeShazer, who scored a takedown at the buzzer of his 133-pound quarterfinal match, Devin Aguirre (165), and 2014 champion Romero Cotton (197).
Bauer’s bunch nearly had a sixth.
Trailing 2-1 in the final 10 seconds of a 125-pound quarterfinal, Indianapolis’s Josh Kieffer, an All-American back in 2012 as a freshman, flipped UNK’s Connor Bolling to his back for five and a stunning last-second victory. Kieffer (19-3) had to get by three-time All-American Garrett Evans of Ouachita Baptist in the first round.
St. Cloud State brought six to St. Louis. Four of them will wrestle in Saturday’s semifinals. Tim Prescott knocked off All-American Willie Bohince of Mercyhurst in a 125-pound quarterfinal, while head coach Steve Costanzo’s trio of All-Americans -- Clint Poster (38-0), Gabe Fogerty (27-3), and Austin Goergen (32-1) -- also moved to the final four in their brackets.
On the back side, SCSU’s Mike Rhone (133) and true freshman Larry Bonstad (149) came back to win matches in Friday’s final session and will finish inside the top eight.
Maryville pushed three to the semifinals, Bauer at 133, along with All-Americans Zeb Wahle (25-6) at 174 and 184-pounder Nick Burghardt (33-7). Head coach Mike Denney’s unit suffered a big body blow when Hagerty, after his loss to McCauley, was pinned by Bonstad. The bonus points pushed SCSU 3.5 points in front of Nebraska-Kearney in a team race that will only get better on the second day.
By the time Friday night’s carnage was done, St. Cloud State sat atop the standings with 47 points, 2.5 better than Nebraska-Kearney.
“This morning we were 4-2 and I thought maybe we should have been 5-1,” Costanzo said. “But to come back tonight and win all of our matches and get some bonus points on top of that it’s unreal. I just commend these guys’ effort.”
SCSU finished as bridesmaid in 2011, 2012, and 2013 and are in search of their first title in 42 NCAA appearances.
Maryville (42.5), Mercyhurst (40), and Ouachita Baptist (33.5) round out the top five. Notre Dame sits in seventh at 26.5 points.
Wrestling resumes Saturday at 11 a.m. The finals hit the stage at 8 p.m.