By Jason Bryant USA Wrestling
One thing we learn in wrestling is that nothing, absolutely nothing, is a foregone conclusion. Wrestling doesn't take place on paper, and if the numbers tell you one thing, wrestlers can tell you another. Such is the case with this year's NCAA Division II Championships set to kick off Friday at the University of Nebraska-Omaha's Sapp Fieldhouse.
The host Mavs, the defending champions, qualified all 10 wrestlers to the Division II championships - all of them get to sleep in their own beds, which might be calming to Zen-like head coach Mike Denney.
But once the first whistle blows on Friday morning, there will be little calm about the commotion in Sapp Fieldhouse. The Mavs look to win their sixth NCAA Division II championship and fifth in the last seven years.
St. Cloud State and coach Steve Costanzo bring eight wrestlers to Omaha, while Findlay, Minnesota State-Mankato, Newberry, UW-Parkside and Western State each bring seven.
Newberry, which is currently without a nickname, stands to be the top challenger to UNO. No longer the new kid on the block, coach Jason Valek's team has twice been runners-up to UNO at the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals and finished second at the NCAA Division II championships last year in Houston, earning the first two individual championships in school history as Keeno Griffin and Cy Wainwright won championships.
UNO has more depth, but at the NCAA postseason level, no one is immune to upsets. The brackets aren't seeded, rather than a 1-4, 2-3 format with the regional places determining where the wrestlers end up in the draw.
Adams State's Arsenia Barksdale is the returning champion and while the RMAC has been down in terms of overall team depth this season, the regional is pretty deep at the weight. Five returning All-Americans dot the brackets, with Barksdale on the bottom half of the bracket with Newberry's Matt Oliver and returning runner-up Tommy Edgmon facing Andy Forstner of Minnesota State-Mankato in the opening round. Seth Wright of New Mexico Highlands is a former Division I wrestler at Northern Iowa and had been ranked No. 1 at one point during the season. Barksdale beat Edgmon in the semis of the RMAC, and then beat Wright in the finals. East Region champion Kenny Trumbetta of Seton Hill is that school's first Division II qualifier. Another great first-round match to keep an eye on is UNC Pembroke's Russell Weakley taking on UNO's Terrell McKinney. The two haven't met this season, but are high All-American candidates. Midwest Regional champion Cody Zimmerman of UW-Parkside draws Pitt-Johnstown's Ryan Link in the opener, with the winner taking on either Wright or Augustana's Alex Meger. Barksdale is the likely favorite, but will possibly have to get through Oliver and Upper Iowa's Northern Sun champion Tyler Mumbulo, an All-American two years ago, to get to the finals.
Nebraska-Omaha's Cody Garcia looks to win his third Division II championship after finishing third a year ago. Garcia, 45-0, lost a quarterfinal bout to eventual champion Joe Kemmerer of Kutztown a year ago and then pinned his way through the consolation bracket. Garcia's on the bottom half of the bracket, with last year's runner-up, Shane Valko of UPJ up top. With five All-Americans in the field, it should be festive, to say the least. Garcia faces returning All-American Joe Morrison of Nebraska-Kearney in the opening round. Central Oklahoma's Scott Berens placed last year, as did San Francisco State's Naveed Bagheri. One wrestler to watch is Augustana's Laramie Shaffer, an Iowa State transfer, who comes in 14-3. He'll face Limestone's Mike Magaha in the opening round. One of the top first-round matches to watch is Newberry's Sheridan Moran, who started his career at Virginia Tech, against Upper Iowa's Kyle Pedretti. Bagheri and Garcia should meet in the bottom bracket semi. Bagheri's only two losses this season have come at the hands of Division I wrestlers.
Three returning All-Americans highlight the weight with the top returning finisher being UNO's Mario Morgan. The Illinois native and former Harvey Twister will face Southwest Minnesota State's Brandan Schunk in the opening round. Morgan will face either Adam Hluschak of East Stroudsburg or Jimmy Savala, returning from an injury, for Chadron State. Up top, Limestone's Jeremy Parker is the East Region champ and faces 4-4 Jesse Cruz of Western State in the opening round. Should he prevail, Parker will face either Dan Genetin of Ashland or Gabe Suarez of St. Cloud State. Jay Sherer, a returning All-American for Augustana, faces Josh Falk of Findlay. Cory Bloodgood of Central Missouri, the other All-American in the field, faces Brady Schneeberger of Minnesota State-Moorhead in the opening round. If projected rankings hold, we should see semis with Parker facing Sherer and Morgan facing, well, pretty much anyone from the bottom half of the lower bracket, with Bloodgood being a potential semifinalist. He'll have to get by either Adams State's Josh Hensley, the RMAC runner-up or Dallas Evans of Seton Hill.
Two of the five former All-Americans come in from different weights. West Liberty's Mitch Smith was fourth at 157 last season, while Travis Elg placed two years ago at 141 pounds. Returning at the weight are UW-Parkside's Craig Becker, UNO's Esai Dominguez and Gannon's Kevin McElhaney. Dominguez and McElhaney meet in the first round, with the winner facing either Derek Stolarzyk of Upper Iowa or Louie DeSantis of CSU-Pueblo. Coming in under .500 is Elg, who draws Connecticut native T.J. Hepburn of Nebraska-Kearney in the opening round. The winner faces Becker, who is one of the nation's best pinners, or Pitt-Johnstown's Ryan McIntyre. Becker's the dangerous draw here, with 11 falls on the year. He'll be looking for another shot at Smith, who he's split with this season. Two guys to keep an eye on are Newberry's exciting Latra Collick, still looking for his first medal, and Augustana redshirt freshman Nate Herda. This kid is tough.
Four All-Americans return, with two coming from 2008. Mercyhurst's Andy Lamancusa is the top returning placewinner, finishing third last year. He's in the top bracket with Fort Hays State's Danny Grater, who was sixth last year. 2008 All-American John Sundgren of St. Cloud State is in the bottom bracket with the other '08 All-American, Joey Deaguero of Adams State. A sentimental favorite is 33-year-old Justin Decker, a former Iowa wrestler using his last year of eligibility for Upper Iowa. He qualified and will face UNC Pembroke's Michael Williams in the opening round, with the winner facing either Grater or Findlay's Michael Lybarger. Augustana's Marcus Edgington draws Lamancusa right off the bat, a tough draw for the Augie, who spent notable time this year at the top of the rankings. Keep an eye out on Newberry's Sean Byrnes. A New Jersey native, Byrnes shouldn't be looked past. Another good first rounder to keep an eye on is UNO's George Ivanov vs. Grand Canyon's Stephen Towne.
Mercyhurst's Josh Shields won the championship last year, giving the Lakers their first individual Division II champion and he returns looking for another title. He'll be in the top half of the bracket with last year's third-place winner Tad Merritt of St. Cloud State. Returning finalist from 157, Travis Eggers of Upper Iowa, is down low with Pitt-Johnstown's Kyle Keane and Nebraska-Kearney's Taylor May, who finished fifth last season. Keane and May meet in the first round, with the winner likely facing Eggers in the quarters. Keane was fourth in 2008. UNO's Ryan Pankoke faces Minnesota State-Mankato's Tel Todd in the opener. Wrestling fans might know the name. Tel is the younger brother of former Michigan All-American Tyrel Todd. Merritt's first round draw is no slouch - Parkside's Matt Gille won 40 matches this season. The unknown entity who could cause problems at this weight is Grand Canyon's Victor Carazo. He's 20-0 against Division II competition this year and 13-0 at 165 since dropping down from 174 in mid-January. He could see Merritt or Gille in the quarters.
Four past All-Americans are at the weight, including last year's runner-ups Kamarudeen "Marty" Usman of Nebraska-Kearney and Aaron Denson of UNO. Mitch Norton of Upper Iowa placed fifth last year, and Denson was the runner-up at 165. J.J. Davis of UNC Pembroke placed two years ago. Newberry's Curtis Chenoweth is a former NAIA National Champion when he was at Newman, which oddly enough, is now in its first year qualifying wrestlers to the Division II championships. Denson and Usman will be the most-watched quarterfinal, as the rest of the field needs to pick off UNO wrestlers early for someone other than the Mavs to have a chance at the team title. This weight doesn't boast a list of impressive records, except for Usman, who is 40-1 and that lone loss coming to Nebraska's Stephen Dwyer at the Lone Star Duals back in January.
Since coming into the lineup in the second semester for Kutztown, Tim Darling's gone a solid 15-1. The Penn State transfer will face Craig Draper-Johnson in the opening round, then likely face UNO's Austin Boehm, the 2007 runner-up, in the quarters. With only three former All-Americans in the field, and one of them - Kearney's Derek Ross from 197 in 2009 - the field is pretty wide open. Newberry's Bryant Blanton was fourth last year and is down low with 43-match winner Lucas Haag of Parkside, his potential quarterfinal opponent. Ross is up top with Darling and awaiting a good opponent in the quarters. Ross could see St. Cloud's Derek Skala or East Stroudsburg's Shane Mallory once the two figure out who's going to move on. Mallory and his ESU teammates are in their first year at the Division II level after dropping down from Division I after last season. Mallory handed Darling his only loss of the season back in January. UNO could get a big push from Boehm, should he knock off Darling in the quarters. Pitt-Johnstown's Patrick Walsh is down low with Western State's Charlie Pipher.
This isn't something that happens very often. In fact, it rarely happens, but when it does, it's something you should notice. What exactly doesn't happen? Well, Kyle Sand of Adams State won the NCAA Division II championship last year at 184 pounds. Keeno Griffin, as mentioned earlier, won the Division II championship last year at 197 pounds. Sand moved up to 197 this year … and the pair meet early. Like, real early, as in first round early. Five All-Americans are in the weight, including two 2009 champions, along with last year's runner-up, Jacob Marrs of UNO and 2008 runner-up Donovan McMahill. Where do we begin? Griffin, Sand and McMahill are all on the top side of the bracket, while Marrs and Augustana's Tyler Copsey are on the bottom half. Whoever comes through the top is going to be beaten and battered, making the position for Marrs a favorable one. Other wrestlers to watch are St. Cloud's Luke Munkelwitz, San Francisco State's Vince Bordi, West Liberty's Mitch Knapp and Central Oklahoma's Jarrett Edison.
Even without seeding, the Division II heavyweight bracket is always one of the most entertaining. Five returning All-Americans are in the weight, including the returning runner-up Dustin Finn of Central Oklahoma. But one of the favorites isn't a returning All-American, it's UNO redshirt freshman Elijah Madison. Up top with Madison is Steve Franklin of San Francisco State, who was sixth last year, along with St. Cloud's Jake Kahnke and New Mexico Highlands' Jesse Boggs. Kahnke, a transfer from Old Dominion, will face Boggs in the opening round. Chris Dempsey of UPJ won the East Region coming from the No. 6 position in the bracket. Madison and Franklin should meet in the quarters. Down low, it's pretty fun. Brady Wilson, last year's third-place winner, faces CSU-Pueblo's Patrick Carey, while Lynn Panko of Indianapolis faces last year's fifth-place winner Nail McGrath of Gannon, with the winners facing each other in the quarters. Charlie Alexander of Western State, an All-American last year and former Division I qualifier at Oregon, will likely face Finn in the quarterfinals. Finn beat Alexander 2-0 at the National Duals. When the dust settles (cliché warning), expect an exciting weight and a deserving champion.