The NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships are set for Friday and Saturday in Birmingham, Alabama. Part of the DII Festival, wrestling joins indoor track and field and swimming in the Olympic-style event with three separate venues all located within one athletic complex.
Nebraska-Kearney won the second of back-to-back DII wrestling titles in 2013 in Birmingham. There will be plenty of twists and turns in swimming and diving, and more than a few wins and losses decided by seconds and a fraction of an inch in track and field. The wrestling will include twists, turns, last-second victories and plenty of drama, as well.
Here are 10 things to watch for in Birmingham.
St. Cloud State has won the last two NCAA Championships and has been ranked No. 1 all season. Head coach Steve Costanzo’s squad packs a powerful and experienced punch led by national champion 125-pounder Brent Velasquez and three-time All-American Austin Goergen at heavyweight. SCSU was bridesmaids in 2011, 2012 and 2013 but got over the hump two seasons ago in St. Louis. Notre Dame College of Ohio won the 2014 NCAA title and brings a ton of talent to Alabama. Senior 184-pounder Garrett Lineberger is a former national champion, and freshman 165-pounder Isaiah White leads the pack at 165 pounds. Senior 125-pounder Ivan McClay will also cause problems, along with 141-pounder Cobey Fehr.
If SCSU and NDC wrestle as well as they are capable, they will separate from the field and go toe-to-toe for the 2017 trophy.
Nick Becker, a junior from Hartford, Wisconsin, started his career at Central Michigan after winning a state championship for Hartford Union High School in Wisconsin. Since transferring to Wisconsin-Parkside before the 2015-16 season, Becker is 62-0. The 174-pounder finished a 41-0 sophomore campaign with an NCAA title last March. Becker’s (21-0) older brother Craig, an assistant coach for UW-P, was a DII champion for the Rangers in 2010.
One more rung
There are a number of NCAA silver medalists in the field from last March, including Ashland senior 133-pounder Michael Labry, Mercyhurst 125-pounder Willie Bohince, Indianapolis 133-pounder Nick Crume, Seton Hill 141-pounder Joseph Alessandro and UNC-Pembroke’s Blaze Shade, a 174-pounder.
- Bohince, a senior, lost to SCSU’s Brent Velasquez in the 2016 final and brings a 35-2 record into the weekend. He squares off with Wisconsin-Parkside’s Ronzell Darling (31-4) in the first round.
- Labry (31-1) redshirted in 2015-16 after finishing second, his third All-America medal.
- Crume (24-3), a junior, lost to Pittsburgh-Johnstown’s Nick Roberts in the 133-pound final last March. Up a weight, Crume is in a bracket that includes both finalists from 2016, including runner-up Joey Alessandro of Seton Hill.
- North Carolina-Pembroke’s Blaze Shade (25-3) lost to UW-P’s Nick Becker in a Super Region final and to Becker in the 2016 NCAA championship bout.
The match everyone wants?
Two wrestlers who started their careers at the Division I level could be on a collision course in the 157-pound bracket. Nebraska-Kearney’s Destin McCauley was the 149-pound champion last March. A much-heralded recruit from Minnesota, McCauley ended up at Nebraska before transferring to UNK. He is 31-6 entering Friday. The opposite side of the bracket has Pittsburgh-Johnstown’s Cody Law, who is 26-0 in his first season of DII after transferring from Penn State. Law, from Windber, Pennsylvania, was a state champion.
Old dogs, same tricks
St. Cloud State’s lineup features two wrestlers seeking a fourth All-America finish. Huskies’ 165-pounder Gabe Fogarty, from Jordan, Minnesota, redshirted in 2015-16 after taking third. In two previous trips to nationals, Fogarty was seventh twice. He is 22-8 and part of perhaps the toughest bracket in the tournament. SCSU senior heavyweight Austin Goergen takes a 27-1 mark to Birmingham and has finished third, second and sixth in three appearances. Over the last three campaigns, the Caledonia, Minnesota, product is 95-5.
With heavy hearts
Pittsburgh-Johnstown will wrestle with Nick Roberts on their minds this weekend. The 2016 NCAA champion for the Mountain Cats was found unresponsive in his campus apartment two Saturday’s ago and died at the age of 23. Injuries derailed Roberts this season, keeping him of the mat. Head coach Pat Pecora, leader of the UPJ program for over four decades, brings five wrestlers to Birmingham, including 2016 national champion Tyler Reinhart, a 165-pounder. Heavyweight DJ Sims told the Tribune-Democrat, “If you feel that you can make an impact in Nick’s name, thinking about Nick, make that impact. If you guys want to win a national title this year, make that impact, make it in Nick’s name. If you want to get a degree, make it in Nick’s name. If you want to do special things, make it in Nick’s name. You know what? He’d do it for you, he’d do it for himself and he’d do it to make UPJ proud of him.”
Lennie and the Lancers
California Baptist is the only program west of Colorado among the top 25. Head coach Lennie Zalesky, a former star at the University of Iowa, brings a team to Birmingham with plenty of potential. Senior 197-pounder Jake Waste (26-3), from Apple Valley, Minnesota, has done everything but win a national title, while sophomore Nicholas Fiegener is 31-2 at 184 pounds; he started his career at Cal Poly. Nolan Kistler (22-9), seventh last March, is another one to watch in the 174-pound bracket. CBU enters the weekend as a team capable of making plenty of noise.
Five wrestlers will defend NCAA titles from 2016 with another, Notre Dame College’s Garrett Lineberger, who was champion in 2014, trying to return to the top of the medal stand. SCSU’s Brett Velasquez (21-2) won the 125-pound title last March, while McKendree’s Darren Wynn (33-7) was king at 141, UNK’s Destin McCauley (31-6) was champ at 149, UPJ’s Tyler Reinhart (21-4) best at 165, and Becker (21-0) tops at 174.
There is plenty of first-year talent headed to Birmingham, possibly led by Notre Dame College 165-pounder Isaiah White (20-2). The Oak Park, Illinois, product won three Illinois state titles and took out Mercyhurst veteran Francis Mizia, a three-time All-American, in Super Region competition.
Pittsburgh-Johnstown’s Chris Eddins is 27-9 at 141 pounds. His Super Region resume includes a win over 2016 NCAA runner-up Joseph Alessandro of Seton Hill and NDC’s talented Coby Fehr. Alessandro’s teammate, 125-pounder Alan Diltz (19-5), beat Mercyhurst’s Willie Bohince, a 2016 NCAA finalist, two weekends ago.
Gannon 133-pounder Carmine Ciotti (20-2), from Erie, Pennsylvania, ranks ninth in the NCAA’s Most Dominant standings heading to Birmingham; he has 11 pins this season. JaVaughan Perkins is from Omaha, Nebraska, and suits up for Colorado State-Pueblo at 184 pounds. He could get a shot at 2014 NCAA champion Lineberger in Friday night’s quarterfinals.
St. Cloud State 149-pounder James Pleski is 24-8 and part of a team who often put freshman on the medal stand. Top-ranked Nic Goebel (19-0) of Findlay could be a quarterfinal opponent.
The battle to come
Each of the 10 brackets will include plenty of nail-biters and moments to remember, but two weights — 141 and 165 pounds — could prove very entertaining over the two days.
At 141 pounds, Maryville senior Nate Rodriguez (28-2) has not been healthy since two All-America seasons at Ouachita Baptist, while defending champion Darren Wynn of McKendree has seven losses in 2016-17. Indianapolis’ Nick Crume (24-3) lost in the 133-pound NCAA final last March. Wynn beat Seton Hill’s Joey Alessandro in the 2016 final — they could meet in Friday night’s quarterfinals.
The 165-pound field could produce the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler Award. NDC’s White has to get by Colorado Mesa’s Jason Buhr, then possibly SCSU veteran Gabe Fogarty. Kutztown’s T.C. Warner (15-3) is also lurking. The other half of the bracket includes Mizia (35-2) and 2016 NCAA champion Reinhart of UPJ. McKendree’s Brock Wingbermuehle has won 16 of 18 matches after transferring from Division I Oklahoma.