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Jim Nelson | NCAA.com | March 10, 2016

Wartburg once again the favorites at DIII championships

  Wartburgh has been top-ranked all season and won its sixth consecutive NWCA National Duals title.

The story line has not changed much from 2015.

Wartburg College will enter the 2016 NCAA Division III wrestling championships as a heavy favorite to win its 12th Division III crown when they start Friday at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

That was the same case a year ago in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where the perception was that nobody would come close to the Knights.

The funny thing about perception, however, is it doesn't win championships.

Wartburg had a fine NCAA tournament in Hershey last year, finishing second with eight all-Americans, but it was not as good as long-time rival Augsburg College, whom nobody figured had a shot at winning. The Auggies racked up 16 bonus-point wins, and despite having two fewer all-Americans than Wartburg, it was Augsburg that claimed its 12th NCAA Division III title.

"That is a perfect example that it doesn't matter what anybody feels about your full potential," Auggie head coach Jim Moulsoff said. "It's about you going out and wrestling to your full potential, not what somebody else feels is your full potential.

"It's about believing in yourself and that group bought into that philosophy last year."

BRACKET: See the complete DIII wrestling schedule

Augsburg and Wartburg, who have combined to win the last 21 NCAA Division III titles, each qualified a tournament high nine wrestlers for the championships.

"This group is similar to last years. They saw the success those guys had and want to be part of it, want to contribute to it," Moulsoff said. "There is no pressure on us so you just go out and compete. That is all it is. You have to compete to win."

Wartburg, which returns 45 1/2 of its points from last year's team, including defending 149-pound champion Kenny Martin, has been top-ranked all season and easily won its sixth consecutive NWCA National Duals title in January.

Knight head coach Eric Keller said his team has blinders on and is heading to Cedar Rapids prepared to go to work.

"The biggest message we've delivered this week is trust everything we've done all year," Keller said. "Be prepared to go out there and sellout for seven minutes or however long the match goes. The guys have to understand we are prepared and we've just got to keep on doing the things we've done all season long."

Among the other teams that are expected to contend for a team trophy are Messiah with seven qualifiers and a bunch of teams with six -- Wabash College, Roger Williams, Luther College and Ithaca College.

Wabash was third last year and Messiah sixth.

JOINING THE THREE-TIMER CLUB: Wabash College junior Riley Lefever will look to join an elite club as the top seed at 184.

Already a two-time national champion, Lefever would be the 16th wrestler in Division III history to win three titles joining Jim Weir of John Carroll, Shawn Smith of Delaware Valley, John Monaco of Montclair State, Karl Monaco of Montclair State, Raphael Wilson of Augustana (Ill.), Matt Hamill of RIT, Ken Mallory of Montclair State, Tim Jacoutut of the College of New Jersey, Ryan Allen of UW-La Crosse, Dan Laurent of UW-La Crosse, Kenny Anderson of Wartburg, Dustin Hinschberger of Wartburg, Byron Tate of Wartburg, Myanganbayer Batsukh of St. John's and Nazar Kulchytskyy of UW-Oshkosh.

Lefever has never lost to a Division III opponent and carries a 115-3 career mark in the championships.

THE UNPREDICTABLE:  With so few chances for East Coast teams to wrestle teams from the Midwest or West, seeding the Division III tournament can be tricky.

Case in point is over the last three championships 51 seeded wrestlers have been defeated in either a pigtail or first-round match, including a whopping five-seeded wrestlers fell in the first round of last year's championships in the 184-pound weight class.

Twice in the last three years an unseeded wrestler has reached the finals with Springfield's Devin Biscaha winning the 157-pound title in 2013. Augsburg's Chad Bartschenfeld made the 133 finals last year before falling to Wilkes University's Matthew Grossman, who was the five seed himself.

BY THE NUMBERS: There will be 37 returning all-Americans in the field, including five returning national champions -- Kenny Martin of Wartburg at 149, Farai Sewera of Coe at 165, Lefever of Wabash at 184, Joe Giaramita of SUNY-Cortland at 197 and Donny Longendyke of Augsburg at 285.

Additionally, James Buss of Millikin, a 2014 NCAA champ for Loras College, is in the 285-pound field.

RUNNER-UP BLUES: Lucas Malmberg of Messiah is one of three runner-ups in the field joining Drew Van Anrooy of Luther (141) and Tyler Schneider of UW-La Crosse (second at 165 last year and qualified at 174 this year).

Malmberg was also the runner-up at 125 in 2014.

In Division III history five individuals have finished as a national runner-up three times -- Mike Jacoutut of Buffalo State and Trenton State, Tony Smith of Brockport State, Ron Bussey of Trenton State, Blake Gillis of Wartburg and Orlando Ponce of Augsburg.

Jocoutut, Smith and Gillis are also on the elite list of four-time national finalists joining the only four-time national champion in Division III history - Marcus LeVesseur of Augsburg and Allen from UW-La Crosse, who was a runner-up in 2003 before winning three straight 285 crowns.