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Nebraska's Craig Brester ready to make run at national title in home state

Nebraska’s Craig Brester (top) battles Iowa State’s Jake Varner in the 2009 NCAA finals. Larry Slater photo.

OMAHA, Neb. " Craig Brester grew up dreaming of being a Nebraska Cornhusker.

He idolized University of Nebraska national champion Brad Vering.

And looked forward to the day he was going to wrestle for the Huskers.

There was only problem during his senior year in high school. Nebraska didn’t offer him a scholarship.

That didn’t matter to Brester. He joined the Husker program as a walk-on at 174 pounds and quickly developed into a top-flight wrestler.

Brester, a farm boy from the tiny, close-knit eastern Nebraska town of Howells (population 632), has pieced together a remarkable college career.

Fourth and second in the past two NCAA tournaments at 197, Brester is set to cap his Husker career by winning a national title in his home state. He will carry the No. 2 seed into the NCAA Championships, set for Thursday through Saturday at the Qwest Center.

“This is a dream come true, to finish my career wrestling in Nebraska,” said Brester, who won two state titles in high school. “It’s fantastic, having an opportunity to wrestle in your home state. It’s an incredible opportunity for me.

“I couldn’t write it any other way.”

Brester’s only losses this season have come to Iowa State’s top-ranked Jake Varner at 197 pounds.

Brester knocked off Varner just down the road in Lincoln in the finals of the 2009 Big 12 Championships.

Since that match, Varner made the 2009 U.S. World Team in freestyle wrestling. He also earned three close wins over Brester this season, including one in overtime.

“I just about had him out in Ames in the dual,” Brester said. “He beat me pretty decently in Norman (in the Big 12 finals.) I need to go out there with the mindset that this is the match I want.

“It’s about staying focused. It’s almost guaranteed that (Varner) is going to be waiting there in the finals. I just have to do my work and get that rematch again. There are plenty of tough kids on my side of the bracket.”

Brester has learned plenty from Vering, a fellow Howells native who won this tournament 10 years ago in St. Louis. Vering went on to make two Olympic teams in Greco-Roman wrestling and win a silver medal in the World Championships.

“Brad is such a great example of what you can accomplish with hard work,” Brester said. “I followed his career closely and I’ve worked with him a lot. He’s obviously meant a lot to my career.

“He just tells me to go out and have fun. He knows I’ve put in the work.”

Brester attended many of Vering’s camps in Nebraska while growing up. Brester is shooting to join Vering and become just the second native Nebraskan to win an NCAA title for the Huskers.

“Absolutely, I saw Craig’s potential back in high school,” Vering said. “I didn’t think he was going to make that quick of an impact in college, and that’s all a tribute to him. I thought he had the potential to be an All-American and maybe contend for a title as a senior. But he was a contender already as a freshman.

“The biggest key to success in college wrestling is how hard you work. Craig has put in an enormous amount of work. He’s been a student of the game. He is a scholar-athlete. He does everything right, on and off the mat. He’s a great guy. He’s very coachable. He’s exactly what you want in a student-athlete.”

Brester made a recruiting visit as a high school senior to Division II national power Nebraska-Omaha, but his heart was set on wrestling at the Division I level in Lincoln.

“I had the goal and dream of wrestling for Nebraska,” he said. “Coach (Mark) Manning gave me the opportunity to walk on. I just kept my head right, and kept working and working.”

Brester has excelled in the classroom as well, earning Academic All-American honors.

“Craig has meant a lot to our program,” Manning said. “He epitomizes what it means to be a student-athlete at Nebraska. He is a tremendous student. He has a 3.9 grade-point average and he’s going to graduate this spring.

“He’s a very humble kid with tremendous values. He comes from a great family. If there is a two-hour practice, he will be there two and a half hours. He’s not a complainer. You would like 40 guys like Craig Brester. He’s really developed himself as a wrestler. He has a tremendous work ethic.”

Manning knows knocking off Varner will not come easy for Brester.

“Varner is very tough,” Manning said. “Craig’s worked hard to be a national champion. That’s his goal and that’s what he’s coming in here to do this weekend.”

Brester has been part of Nebraska teams that placed fourth the past two years at the NCAA Championships, and won a share of the Big 12 title in 2009. The Huskers have struggled this year after returning NCAA champion Jordan Burroughs was lost for the season with a knee injury.

“It’s kind of a lesson not to take anything for granted,” Brester said. “It’s disappointing that our team did not come together like we planned on. The great thing about wrestling is that it is an individual sport. We still have our own goals ahead of us.”

Brester spent time training this past summer at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He said he hasn’t decided if he will continue wrestling on the international level.

The town of Howells may shut down the next few days as a number of people from there will be in Omaha to cheer on Brester. Howells is located about a 90-minute drive northwest of Omaha.

“The support from Howells has been great,” Brester said. “They are real excited about coming down here to watch the tournament. I get phone calls and messages all the time from people in my hometown.”

Vering, who lives in Colorado Springs, will be in attendance this weekend in Omaha.

“It would be huge for Craig to win a national title,” Vering said. “He has a unique opportunity because it is in Omaha and it’s in his backyard. It’s been a chess match against Varner. That win at Big 12s last year was big for Craig. He knows he can beat him. It’s going to be tough for him to beat Varner, but I know he can do it. He has to wrestle well and not make mistakes. If Varner makes a mistake, like he did last year at Big 12s, Craig has to capitalize.

“If any kid deserves to be a national champion, it’s Craig Brester. He’s a class act all the way. He is every coach’s dream.”
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