St. Cloud State, hunter for so long, is now the hunted in Division II wrestling circles. Head coach Steve Costanzo opens his 11th season at SCSU with impressive credentials, leading Dana College in Nebraska to the 2006 NAIA championship and the Huskies to top 10 finishes every season since 2009. There was a trifecta of runner-up finishes in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Following a sixth-place showing at the 2014 NCAA meet, SCSU finally reached the top of the ladder in 2015.
“A lot of people don’t know what goes on behind the scenes; there are a lot of hills and valleys we go through, a lot of major adversities that we face,” said Costanzo after his team went back-to-back in 2016. “It shows the leadership we have in this program. It takes a lot of will, leadership at the top. It takes guys to be positive even when times are down.”
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In five of the last six seasons, SCSU has had an individual champion as well. Brett Velasquez won 125-pound gold last March and returns to lead the DII frontrunners.
“Everyone works so hard in this program,” said Velasquez, a native of Bennington, Nebraska. “This program was close, but took that next step [in 2015]. To win two in a row, that shows the work that has been put in to get to this point.”
“The rollercoaster you go through over the two days at [the NCAA tournament], it wears me out,” Costanzo said last March. “But the work that goes into this, it makes it all worthwhile.”
SCSU does not appear to be slowing down any time soon. Velasquez kicks off a lineup that also includes All-Americans Matt Nelson (141), Larry Bomstad (157), Gabe Fogarty (165), Clayton Jennissen (174) and Austin Goergen (285). Fogarty and Goergen, both seniors, have been among the top eight three times each. Sophomore Vince Deitz (197) had a nice run through some DI competition at the UNI Open and adds more punch.
Nebraska-Omaha won three straight DII titles from 2004-2006 and again from 2009-2011. SCSU will try and match that feat next March in Birmingham, Alabama.
The Huskies host the 36th Holiday Inn/Huskies Open this Saturday. Wrestlers from DI Minnesota, North and South Dakota State, Northern Iowa and DIII Augsburg annually attend the one-day tournament.
The big stage
Sixteen wrestlers who have taken the stage for DII championship finals bouts are back for the 2016-17 campaign. Rosters change from semester to semester — some show up in January, while others decide on redshirts in December.
Five NCAA champions from last March are back: SCSU’s Velasquez, Pittsburgh-Johnstown’s Nick Roberts (133) and Tyler Reinhart (165), McKendree’s Darren Wynn (141) and Nebraska-Kearney’s Destin McCauley (157). Add to that list Garrett Lineberger of Notre Dame College, who won the 184-pound title in 2014.
Ten wrestlers who have come up one win short will look for one more rung on the ladder next March. They are: Willie Bohince (Mercyhurst, 125), Nick Crume (Indianapolis, 133), Joey Allesandro (Seton Hill, 141), Isaac Dulgarian (Notre Dame College, 149), Blaze Shade (UNC-Pembroke, 174), Joe Gomez (Northern State, 197), Michael Labry (Ashland, 133), Zeb Wahle (Maryville, 174), Huston Evans (Newberry, 184) and SCSU’s Goergen. The final four on that list advanced to the 2014 NCAA finals. Dulgarian, a finalist as a freshman, is not currently on the NDC roster.
Now a senior, Labry picked up a pair of wins last weekend to move his career total to 128, a school record. He is 128-12 with his lone loss in 17 matches this season coming to Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher at the Eastern Michigan Open.
Replacing a legend
Central Oklahoma is off to a 3-0 start after Wednesday night’s victory over Ouachita Baptist (Arkansas). The Bronchos finished an uncharacteristic 35th at the 2016 NCAAs and hired Todd Steidley, a former NCAA champion for UCO who brought tradition-rich Ponca City High School in Oklahoma back to prominence. The Wildcats won four consecutive team titles from 2003-2006.
Steidley replaced David James, who led UCO to 12 national championships (NAIA and DII) over a 34-year career.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the influence of David James,” Steidley said when he was hired back in May. “He had a huge impact on me when I went to school at UCO and a lot of the things I’ve done in coaching I do because of him. I want to continue his legacy.
“I guess it’s a new era and I’m excited about it. I feel UCO is the best Division II program in the country, and we want to fight for national championships and continue to mold young men into productive citizens.”
Steidley’s debut dual back in November proved dramatic. Caleb Cotter’s second period pin at 285 pounds gave the Bronchos a 21-19 victory over McKendree (Illinois), ranked eighth in the preseason DII national poll.
● The Seton Hill Griffins have a solid 1-2 combo in Joey Allesandro and Ty Lydic. Allesandro, a sophomore from North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, rolled to the 141 national finals last March and finished 18-6. Lydic, a senior from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, who transferred from Pittsburgh after his freshman season, is a two-time NCAA DII qualifier.
● Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference squads, DI and DII, will hit the mats at Lock Haven this Saturday for the 74th PSAC Championships. Edinboro has won five straight titles. DII’s third-ranked Pittsburgh-Johnstown, No. 4 Mercyhurst, No. 11 Seton Hill and No. 24 Shippensburg are in the field, along with fellow DII programs Gannon, Kutztown, Millersville and East Stroudsburg.
● Just around the corner is the 38th Midwest Classic, hosted by Indianapolis. Thirty-nine teams across NAIA and DII will hit the mats. Among those from DII participating Dec. 17-18 are 17 members of DII’s top 25, including Maryville (Missouri), Upper Iowa, Mercyhurst (Pennsylvania), McKendree (Illinois), Indianapolis, and Tiffin (Ohio) just to name a few. It should be considered a preview to the NWCA National Duals coming in January.