SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Most figured Tim Prescott would be in Sioux Falls this weekend to defend his national title. But at St. Cloud State, in a room with plenty of depth in the lower weight classes, nothing is guaranteed.
Prescott, a senior, finished his junior campaign by beating Augustana’s T.J. North in the 125-pound NCAA final. For much of this season, he worked with and battled, on a daily basis, redshirt-freshman Brent Velasquez. Late in the year, SCSU head coach Steve Costanzo determined that Prescott and Velasquez were close enough that a wrestle-off was needed to see who would represent the Huskies in the postseason.
Velasquez, a four-time state champion from Nebraska, came out on top and became the starter. And to the surprise of nobody inside the SCSU room, Velasquez will wrestle for the championship at 125 pounds tonight at the 2016 NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships inside the Denny Sanford Premier Center.
“I’ve never had that happen in my years of coaching,” Costanzo said. “A lot of people have questioned me about the decision, to have that wrestle-off at the end of the year. It could have gone either way. Tim has shown great support for his teammate; if it wasn’t for Tim Prescott, Brent would not be where he is right now, getting ready for the NCAA finals.
“We are pretty fortunate to have some pretty good depth at 125 in the room.”
Velasquez (24-2) came out unscathed following a massive scramble over the final minute of his semifinal win over Wisconsin-Parkside’s Ronzel Darling Saturday morning. The two twisted and turned, both men clinging to ankles that resulted in no points for either man and a 2-0 win for the Huskie rookie. A second-period rideout and third period escape were the only points of the match.
“I had the same mindset I had the year before as a redshirt, going in every day and working hard in practice whether it’s with Tim (Prescott) or any of the other outstanding 125 or 133 pounders we have in the room,” said Velasquez, who meets Mercyhurst’s Willie Bohince tonight. “As far as starting, I was doing everything the coaches were asking of me. There was no reason to not let me wrestle in any duals or tournaments. Tim, a lot of time last year, they gave him some matches off because it is a really long season. I took the opportunity that the coaches gave me at the end of the year with the wrestle-off.
“It is a surreal feeling. I felt bad for Tim, I couldn’t really celebrate in the moment. But he has really supported me this week and without him the last couple of years I wouldn’t be here. Everybody in our room works so hard, our depth is why we are where we are every year.”
A grind-it-out two days of wrestling continued Saturday morning. St. Cloud State led by two points after the first day but pushed just one to the semifinals. Three teams – Notre Dame College, Nebraska-Kearney, Wisconsin-Parkside, and California Baptist – advanced two wrestlers to tonight’s finals with Pittsburgh-Johnstown suiting up three wrestlers.
SCSU, the 2015 team champion, went just 1-3 in a semifinal round that concluded with California Baptist’s Joe Fagiano, a graduate student, pinning Austin Goergen in the first period at 285 pounds.
When the medal rounds hit the mats around 2 p.m. ET, St. Cloud State led Notre Dame College by 3.5 points. UNK was 7.5 points back with Maryville, with six All-Americans, in fourth. UPJ rounded out the top five, 17 points behind the leaders.
Matt Nelson, Clint Poster, Clayton Jennisen, and Austin Goergen picked up big points for SCSU Saturday afternoon, Poster (40-2) finishing his career as a four-time All-American with a dominating 13-0 win to take third at 165 pounds. Goergen’s technical fall might have been the death blow.
Nebraska-Kearney, with its five All-Americans, cannot catch the Huskies. NDC, in second and eight points back, still has a heartbeat with a pair of finalists. In order for the Falcons to catch and pass the Huskies, two wins, one by bonus, and a Velasquez loss are required.
Perhaps the most anticipated match of tonight’s 10 finals bouts will be 184 pounds where Notre Dame College’s Joey Davis, a three-time national champion and 129-0 for his career, meets Pittsburgh-Johnstown senior Travis McKillop (34-1), now a four-time All-American and NCAA finalist in 2014. McKillop will try and keep Davis from becoming the only Division II wrestler to win four national titles and go unbeaten for a career.
“It’s a great opportunity,” McKillop said after his semifinal win. “I have no pressure on me. It’s my last college match, so I have nothing to lose. He is undefeated for a reason. I think at regionals we both had that mutual respect so it wasn’t a great match. I’ve been here before and I want to get what I think I deserve against somebody who is the best.”
Davis escaped a very good Jacob Waste of California Baptist, 3-2, in his semifinal bout. With an anticipated battle tonight, Davis and McKillop wished each other good luck and produced a hug following their semifinal wins.
The Falcons surged into the lead earlier in the day thanks to Davis and 149-pounder Isaac Dulgarian (26-2), a freshman who will face Nebraska-Kearney’s Destin McCauley for gold tonight. Five other NDC entries are All-Americans.
McCauley, an All-American in 2015, caught Findlay’s Nik Goebel with a twister and scored a fall in his semifinal bout. He’s joined in the finals by two-time champion Romero Cotton, a winner over NDC’s Garrett Lineberger in the 197-pound semifinals.
Daniel DeShazer’s quest for a third title was derailed by Pittsburgh-Johnstown’s Nick Roberts, a transfer from Ohio State. A penalty point for grabbing the headgear was the difference in a 2-1 win for Roberts (17-1), who will meet Indianapolis’ Nick Crume, a 7-5 winner over Minnesota State-Moorhead in the other 133-pound semifinal. Crume (23-6) beat Bosch with a third-period takedown.
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DeShazer came back to win a pair of matches, pinning Bosch in the third place match.
Pittsburgh-Johnstown rebounded from tough first day, pushing 165-pounder Tyler Reinhart (27-6) to the finals along with McKillop and Roberts.
“We came back better today,” UPJ coach Pat Pecora said. “I feel bad for Evan Link, a fifth-year senior that did not finish where he wanted. These kids work so hard and they become like sons, so it’s tough when they don’t reach their goals. To put three in the finals, we have to be happy. There are so many variables in this tournament, it’s tough.
“Davis is so hard to score against, he’s undefeated for a reason. But I believe if there is anybody that can beat Joey Davis it is Travis McKillop.”
Brady Bersano will join Fagiano in the finals for Lennie Zalesky’s Lancers. The senior for California Baptist beat Kutztown’s Matt Martoccio in the semifinals and meets Lindenwood’s unbeaten Terrel Wilbourn (24-0), a finalist in 2015, in tonight’s 157-pound final. The young CBU program seeks its first national champion in wrestling.
Seton Hill’s Joe Alessandro, a redshirt-freshman from North Huntingdon, Pennsylvaia, was a bit under the radar for most of the 2015-16 season. A Pennsylvania high school state qualifier just once, Alessandro entered the postseason of his first collegiate season as a No. 7 seed at Super Region I. The 141-pounder advanced to the finals where he lost to Notre Dame College’s Cobey Fehr. In the bracket this weekend, the Griffin has let it fly. He knocked off Maryville’s top-rated Nate Rodriguez, 11-3, in Friday night’s quarterfinals. In the semifinals, Alessandro won a wild 13-10 match with St. Cloud State’s Matt Nelson. Tonight he faces McKendree’s talented Darren Wynn for a championship.
“We are not surprised that he is here because he’s put in the extra work,” said fourth-year Seton Hill coach Brian Tucker. “We’ve known he’s good his whole career but hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves. He’s been out to prove a point, gaining confidence with each match.”
Putting Pennsylvania kids in a wrestling bracket at Division I, II, or III means anything can happen.
“They are used to the big stage,” Tucker added. “They wrestle big matches against good kids all the time.”
Alessandro takes an 18-5 mark into tonight’s big show.
“I like being under the radar, no one knows you,” Alessandro said. “I only made it to States once, my senior year, so that has helped me this week. I’ve been gaining confidence with each match.
“It’s a little bigger stage tonight. I am going to go out and try and score points, wrestle a good match.”
Seton Hill has never had a national champion in wrestling.
The ebb and flow of a team race always includes bursts of excitement, the roar of the crowd following a big victory. Nebraska-Kearney’s Destin McCauley opened the festivities with a slick twister into a pin in the 149-pound semifinals; the Loper fans exploded. A little while later St. Cloud State senior Clint Poster gave the Husky contingent reason to celebrate, pinning Shorter’s Kade Kitchens in a 165-pound wrestleback. Poster, now a four-time All-American, lost a tough quarterfinal on Friday night.
The third, and possibly the loudest roar of the first session Saturday came when Northern State 197-pounder Joe Gomez beat Tiffin’s Jake Cramer to move into the title bout. Northern State dropped its program last year but refused to go away.
“I’m so grateful for all the support, all the fans that are here,” said Gomez, a junior. “They are the reason I am here. When the program needed the support they provided it. It’s about a three-hour drive and to hear them during my matches really helps me, gets me going.”
Gomez faces Cotton, a bullish, physical three-time national finalist.
“Being at 197, it’s tough. There are so many guys who have beaten each other all year long,” said Gomez (30-3). “Being in tough matches all year, that helps when you get to this tournament. Tonight will be another tough one.”
Gomez looks to join two-time heavyweight champion Matthew Mueleners as Northern State’s only NCAA champion.
The two Nicks
Wisconsin-Parkside’s duo of Nick Fishback and Nick Becker each advanced to tonight’s finals. Fishback (34-4) beat Mercyhurst’s Francis Mizia in a 165-pound semifinal, while Becker (41-0) beat Minnesota State-Mankato’s Adam Cooling, 3-1, in overtime to move into the 174-pound final where he will face North Carolina-Pembroke’s Blaze Shade (40-4).
Thirty-four programs have an All-American this season, 18 schools with one finishing inside the top eight and 16 having at least two.
Like Terrence Smith in 2015, Shorter 165-pounder Kade Kitchens lost in the first round but came back to win a pair of matches to finish inside the top eight. Smith, a 184-pounder, was the Georgia program’s first All-American. Kitchens (27-11), a true freshman from Gadsden, Ala., took eighth this weekend.
Newman 125-pounder Dustin Reed became his school’s first individual All-American in any sport since joining the NCAA. Reed (33-5), a junior from Colby, Kansas, beat Western State’s Ronald Wardleigh for fifth place.
Fifteen schools have at least one finalist.
A late addition
Much debate revolved around a 157-pound quarterfinal where Kutztown’s Matt Martoccio advanced in the bracket when Maryville’s Greg Hegerty was disqualified for an illegal move. Martoccio could not continue and injury defaulted. Originally, after a lengthy review, officials disqualified Hegerty from the tournament. But, after further review and a late session meeting Friday night, it was determined that Hegerty should not be kicked out of the event. Saturday morning Hegerty and Pittsburgh-Johnstown’s Devin Austin squared off for the final All-American spot in the field. Seventy-nine had been determined by the conclusion of wrestling Friday night. Hegerty became No. 80 with a 6-1 victory.