St. Cloud State outwrestled a very deep field to win the 2016 NCAA Division II championship last March. Notre Dame (Ohio) saw Joey Davis win a fourth DII individual title and the Falcons were second in front of Nebraska-Kearney, Pittsburgh-Johnstown, and Maryville (Mo.). The same cast of characters are back for the 2016-17 team race with the championships held in Birmingham, Ala., March 10-11. On paper, its head coach Steve Costanzo and the Huskies. But as wrestling fans know -- championships are not won “on paper.”
1 – St. Cloud State: After playing bridesmaid in 2011, 2012, and 2013, the Huskies climbed the ladder in 2015, then made it two championships in a row last March. With national champion Brett Velasquez (125) back, and veterans Gabe Fogarty (165) and Austin Goergen (285) also returning, SCSU might go wire-to-wire for a third straight in Birmingham. SCSU will not be tested until the NWCA National Duals in early January.
2 – Pittsburgh-Johnstown: UPJ has already wrestled six duals with a nice win against Ashland (Ohio) last Friday. Junior Tyler Reinhart (165) and senior Nick Roberts (133) won DII titles last March and lead a group for the ageless Pat Pecora that also includes Cody Law (157), John Blankenship (174), and heavyweight D.J. Sims. Law is a transfer from Penn State. The Mountain Cats were good last year. They might be even better in 2016-17.
3 – Maryville: As long as Mike Denney is head coach at Maryville, the Saints will be contenders. Nate Rodriguez was on cruise control last season, at 20-0, before an injury derailed the 141-pounder. Staying healthy is key for a squad with five returning All-Americans, including 2015 NCAA finalist Zeb Wahle. Denney will start at least six seniors this season.
4 – Upper Iowa: Heath Grimm has three talented sophomores in Maleek Williams (125), Damian Penichet (149), and Ryan Parmely (197), plus senior Zak Benitz (157) to build around. Penichet was 32-14 as a rookie and earned fourth at the DII championships; Parmely was seventh in the same tournament. The Peacocks, 16th at the 2016 NCAAs, outscored Truman State and Mary (S.D.), 74-12, in two starts this season.
5 – Mercyhurst (Pa.): The Lakers edged Shippensburg (Pa.) and Millersville (Pa.) to open the dual season last Saturday. Three All-Americans are back – 2016 NCAA runner-up Willie Bohince (125), Francis Mizia, fifth at 165,and heavyweight Andy Welton, all three seniors. Mike Wehler’s teams have been ninth and fourth the last two seasons, respectively.
6 – Notre Dame (Ohio): NDC looked to be the team to beat in Sioux Falls, but SCSU held off the Falcons, who return another good squad. All-Americans Cody Fehr (141) and Garrett Lineberger (197), and others, will attempt to fill the void left by four-time NCAA champion Joey Davis. NDC will show up, as usual, with a good product in Fort Wayne, Ind., for the NWCA National Duals in early January.
7 – Nebraska-Kearney: The biggest loss for the Lopers from last season is head coach Marc Bauer, who resigned last August to pursue academic interests. UNK won three DII titles under Bauer, including back-to-back in 2012 and 2013, plus a pair of runner-up showings in 2014 and 2015. Dalton Jensen’s first Loper team is led by 149-pound national champion Destin McCauley, who won a pair of matches at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational last weekend.
8 – Newberry (S.C.): The Wolves took another good team to the national tournament, but again failed to wrestle well, finishing 18th last March. Three All-Americans are back – Huston Evans, Trung Duong, and Jordan Simpson. Already with 10 duals under their belts, Newberry will get its first real DII test at the Midwest Classic, Dec. 17-18, in Indianapolis.
Knocking on the door – California-Baptist, McKendree (Ill.), Tiffin (Ohio), Indianapolis