There is very little these guys haven’t seen.
In 1976 Pat Pecora became head coach at Pittsburgh-Johnstown. Four decades later, the West Liberty University graduate still has a passion for the sport and brings his best team to Sioux Falls, S.D., since a 1999 NCAA Championship squad.
Mike Denney is in his 37th year of coaching. He built a powerhouse at Nebraska-Omaha and may be doing the same at Maryville in St. Louis.
Frank Romano has coached Ohio high school wrestlers, at Kent State, and now Notre Dame College. He has spent three-plus decades working with wrestlers from all over the country. The Ohio native has quickly turned the Falcons into a Division II powerhouse since its inception in 2006, claiming the 2014 DII national title.
Marc Bauer and Steve Costanzo are pupils of Denney. Bauer, in his 16th year at Nebraska-Kearney, was a three-time All-American for Denney at UNO and part of a 1991 national championship team. Costanzo, leader of the 2015 NCAA champion St. Cloud State Huskies, is in his 10th year. He was a three-time NCAA medalist for Denney, finishing his collegiate career in 1995.
This weekend inside Sioux Falls’ Denny Sanford Premier Center, DII’s coaching elite will battle it out matside, getting in the ears of officials when needed and trying to keep calm for two days of what could be very intense competition.
There is not much they can do inside the circle, but preparing student-athletes for the biggest tournament of the season is what this group does. The group of five have combined to coach 14 NCAA championship teams since 1991 when Denney claimed his first at UNO. The last eight NCAA trophies have gone to either Costanzo, Romano, Bauer, or Denney.
And all of them would agree … the 2016 meet could be one to remember.
“This national tournament is probably as balanced as I have ever seen it,“ said Denney, who brings 10 qualifiers into Friday. “There are six teams in the thick of this thing. St. Cloud State had six qualifiers last year and won it. That is a great accomplishment.
“What helps us is the fact that we have a group of seniors who have been there and done that. They know the mindset they need to be in to be at their best.”
Maryville finished third in 2015 and was the preseason favorite by most prognosticators. Injuries derailed the Saints midseason, dropping them to fourth at the National Duals. However, a championship run in Super Region III where MU edged St. Cloud State showed Denney’s group will be tough to beat. All-Americans Nate Rodriguez (24-1 at 141 pounds), John Hagerty (17-4 at 149), and Zeb Wahle (16-3 at 174) are three of the nine former All-Americans for the Saints.
Pittsburgh-Johnstown edged Notre Dame College in Super Region I. Senior Travis McKillop has one loss in 32 matches, that coming to NDC’s Joey Davis in the regional final. Evan Link (26-6 at 125), Nick Roberts (14-1 at 133), Tyler Reinhart (24-6 at 165), and Damon Sims (29-7 at 285) give Pecora plenty of firepower.
The Falcons finished the dual season unbeaten and have more star power than most. Davis is attempting to become the first wrestler in Division II to win four individual titles and not lose a match. Jon Rivera (18-3 at 157) and Garrett Lineberger (23-3 at 197) won national titles in 2014. Coby Fehr (17-1 at 141) and rookie Isaac Dulgarian (23-2 at 149) will be tough outs.
“We really try and focus on two events every year, the National Duals and the NCAA Tournament,” said Romano, now co-head coach with Anthony Ralph. “It is hard to be ready to compete at your highest level every week, so we train for the two biggest events on our schedule. We aren’t doing anything different this week, getting there two days early to get acclimated to everything. We have a group of kids that really feed off each other and this time of year is what they’ve trained for.
“It could be a really good tournament. We can’t control what everybody else does. We just have to be ready to go in every match because there are no easy matches in this tournament.”
Costanzo played bridesmaid to Denney in 2011, 2012, and 2013. In 2015, it was the Huskies’ turn to hoist the trophy. Clint Poster (35-1 at 165), Austin Goergen (32-1 at 285), and senior 149-pounder Jay Hildreth (30-4) have had impressive campaigns this season.
Last March, Bauer saw his Lopers finish second for the fifth time since 2003. UNK won titles in 2008 and back-to-back in 2012 and 2013. No surprise, UNK has another contender with Daniel DeShazer (33-5 at 133), Romero Cotton (20-2 at 197), and All-Americans Destin McCauley (18-5 at 149) and Devin Aguirre (16-2 at 165) leading the charge.
Not quite new kids on the block, Gregg Lewis, in his fifth season at Wisconsin-Parkside, and Mike Wehler, who took over at Mercyhurst in Pennsylvania in 2007, have teams that could factor into the team race in Sioux Falls. UW-P has plenty of point gatherers led by unbeaten 174-pounder Nick Becker (38-0). Mercyhurst chances were hurt with 141-pound All-American Dylan D’Urso was lost to injury. Still, Francis (23-3 at 165) and August Mizia (28-2 at 174) and 149-pounder Jeremy Landowski (19-3), plus multi-year All-American Willie Bohince (24-2 at 125) make Wehler’s squad a dangerous prospect.
The rest of the field, and its coaches, will be fighting for the final three spots inside the top 10.
The toughest weight?
Good question. The bracket at 184 pounds includes the top DII entry, NDC’s Joey Davis and his 126-0 record. But add Newberry’s Huston Evans (30-6), a DI transfer who lost in the 197-pound DII final last March; California Baptist’s Jacob Waste (12-2); Wisconsin-Parkside’s Montrail Johnson (30-4), Minnesota State-Mankato’s Scott VanDeLoo (22-5); UPJ three-time All-American Travis McKillop (31-1); unbeaten Aero Amo (21-0) of homestanding Augustana (S.D.); and Fort Hays State’s Jon Inman (35-2). That list is half the 16-man bracket. So, yes, 184 pounds is pretty stout.
• The 2015 champion at 125 pounds, Tim Prescott of St. Cloud State, is not in the field. His teammate, Brent Velasquez finished 21-2 and is among a long list of contenders. UPJ’s Evan Link (26-6), UNK’s Connor Bolling (28-13), UW-P’s Ronzel Darling (26-3), Mercyhurst’s Willie Bohince (24-2), and Newman’s Dustin Reed (29-3) are just a few of the possible champions.
• UNK senior Daniel DeShazer (33-5) seeks his third DII title at 133 pounds. Minnesota-Moorhead All-American Blake Bosch (28-5) is one to watch on the other side of the bracket.
• Maryville 141-pounder Nate Rodriguez (24-1), a two-time All-American and transfer from Ouachita Baptist in Arkansas, started the season as a pinning machine. An injury and loss to Notre Dame junior Coby Fehr (17-1) opened up the field. UNK’s Keith Surber (22-3), McKendree’s Darren Wynn (33-10), and Coloradans Corbin Bennetts (23-6, Western State) and Daniel Salazar (30-4, Colorado Mesa) are certainly in the mix as well.
• Another incredibly deep weight is 149 with Maryville veteran John Hagerty (17-4) an NCAA finalist many, many moons ago as a freshman. NDC rookie Isaac Dulgarian (23-2), Tiffin’s Michael Screptock (28-15), SCSU’s Jay Hildreth (30-4), Colorado Mesa’s Drew Schumann (21-6), UNK’s Destin McCauley (18-5), Findlay’s Nik Goebel (36-4), and Mercyhurst’s Jeremy Landowski (19-3) on the short list.
Sense a trend here? Every weight class is loaded.
• Kutztown’s Matt Martoccio (27-3), Minnesota State-Mankato’s Matt Mincey (23-2), Belmont Abbey’s Scott Bosak (22-5), unbeaten Terrel Wilbourn (21-0) of Lindenwood, and 2014 champion Jon Rivera (18-3) lead the bunch at 157 pounds.
• SCSU senior Clint Poster has just one loss in 36 matches. The three-time All-American is expected to battle Mercyhurst’s Francis Mizia (23-3), Wisconsin-Parkside’s Nick Fishback (31-4), NDC’s Juwon Edmond (23-8), UPJ entry Tyler Reinhart (24-6), Gannon’s Nathanial Ross (24-6), and UNK All-American Devin Aguirre (16-2) for top honors.
• UW-P stud Nick Becker (38-0) leads a list at 174 pounds that also includes August Mizia (28-2) of Mercyhurst, Zeb Wahle (16-3) of Maryville, UNC-Pembroke All-American Blaze Shade (37-4), UPJ’s John Blankenship (24-12), and Western State’s Austin Harris (33-7).
• In a tournament with loaded brackets, 197 pounds is another doozy. Two-time champion Romero Cotton (20-2) was pinned in a regional final by Colorado School of Mines senior Paul Wilson (24-2). NDC’s Garrett Lineberger (23-3) was a national champion two seasons ago at 184 pounds. Ashland’s Joe Brandt (24-2), Northern State’s Joe Gomez (27-3), and Tiffin’s Jake Cramer (17-5) have all “been there and done that” at previous national meets.
• Of the team race contenders, SCSU has the top man in All-American Austin Goergen (32-1). UPJ has Damon Sims (29-7)and Maryville has underrated Donnell Walker (23-2), both on the opposite side of the bracket from Goergen. Tiffin’s Garrett Gray (40-2) might also have a say, along with California Baptist’s Joe Fagiano (25-5) and Colorado State-Pueblo’s Jacob Mitchell (16-1). With the way the 2016 team race is shaping up, is it possible that the 285-pound finals bout late Saturday night could determine the team champion as well?