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NCAA Div. III Preview: Coaches expect a wide-open team race in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, March 11-12

by Jon Gremmels, Special to

Millikin's Bradan Birt (underneath) putting Quinn Hoopman of Concordia University to his back at the 2021 NWCA Div. III Championships. Photo by Jon Gremmels.

Looking for a new champion in NCAA Division III wrestling?

For 25 years it’s been the same story: Either Augsburg or Wartburg ends up holding the team championship trophy. But this might be the year somebody interrupts that run.

Each of those teams has as many qualifiers as anyone this year, but there is one key difference: The numbers don’t favor either the Auggies or the Knights this time.

Since 1997, either Wartburg or Augsburg has advanced wrestlers at all 10 weight classes on nine occasions, and in six other seasons both teams accomplished that. In most other years, at least one team has had at least nine qualifiers.

But this year, for the first time in Division III history, no team will be represented by more than seven national qualifiers when the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships take place Friday and Saturday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“Most of the time you’re going out there and somebody’s got 10 (qualifiers), a couple teams have nine,” said Joe Galante, coach at The College of New Jersey, whose team advanced six of its 10 wrestlers last month when it won the Mideast Regional title. “In order for us to do some damage, we really needed some parity, and this is something where -- we still have to go out and do our job and wrestle – but we feel it’s a lot more realistic to place and place high.”

Joining Wartburg and Augsburg with seven qualifiers are Baldwin Wallace and Wabash from the Central Regional.

“I think it positions us well,” Wabash Coach Brian Anderson said of his team’s mix of numbers and high seeds. “Obviously, we’ve got a lot of work to do when we get out to Iowa, and we’ve got to be clicking.

“All seven guys need to do their job and win as many matches and put points on the board. I think the first couple of rounds are going to be crucial for all the teams that are bringing in a lot of guys and seeing how many bonus-point victories we can pick up in those early rounds … .”

Right behind that foursome with seven qualifiers are two teams with six -- The College of New Jersey and Coe, from the host city -- while the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Ithaca, Johnson & Wales, North Central and Wisconsin-Eau Claire have five apiece.

“We feel like we can compete with almost anybody with the guys that we’re sending out there and the way they’re wrestling right now,” Galante said.

“Every coach is greedy and wants all 10 guys, but I’m feeling good,” Coast Guard Coach Kevin Bratland said of his team that won the Northeast Regional title. “There’s going to be some competitive weight classes, so I’m looking forward to seeing how we match up and do against some of these guys. It’s going to be exciting. I think they have a great chance.

Augsburg Coach Jim Moulsoff expects an interesting team race.

“I think this year, unlike most years, it’s pretty wide open,” he said. “I think this tournament is going to be very competitive in the sense that I don’t think that one team is going to dominate. It’s going to be whatever team is going to be able to get hot, get some momentum going. As a fan, I think that’s super exciting.”

Wartburg Coach Eric Keller is treating nationals as if it is business as usual.

“For us, we always expect It to be a battle,” he said. “There’s never been an easy national championship, that’s a fact. Our mindset that we’ve had all year long: How do we perform? How do we compete? And doing what we control and keeping the focus on our guys.

“That’s worked pretty well for us the last part of the season.”

Augsburg is the defending champion, but the past two national tournaments have been COVID-19 casualties since the Auggies won their 13th team title in 2019. Thanks to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, there was a postseason tournament last season, but even that had a limited amount of teams, mostly from the Midwest.

“That was honestly a well-replicated national tournament,” Keller said. “And it did have a national championship feel. I think it definitely helped our guys.”

Keller’s Knights are seeking a record 15th team title and enter the NCAA Championships as the No. 1 team in the tournament rankings.

“We’re excited,” Keller said. “Obviously after the last two years of not having the national tournament, there’s a lot of perspective there with that, and having the opportunity to go and compete in the national tournament again and having it be in Cedar Rapids, close to home, I feel fortunate to be doing it again.”

Several of teams among the leaders in qualifiers have rich histories, too. The College of New Jersey is a five-time team champion, Ithaca has won three and is the last team not named Augsburg or Wartburg to win the crown (in 1994). Wabash has a pair of third-place finishes in the past five national tournaments, while Ithaca (2018) and Johnson & Wales (2019) took third in the most recent two championships.


You can never count out the two teams that have dominated the sport at the Division III level since the 1990s, but neither has shown itself to be invulnerable this season. North Central defeated Wartburg in a December dual meet, while Wartburg (by a 24-8 margin) and Loras (23-17) own dual wins over the Auggies, with both coming at Augsburg’s Si Melby Hall.

All seven Wartburg wrestlers come in with top-six rankings, six of them are ranked first or second at their respective weights by the National Wrestling Coaching Association and all seven are seeded fourth or higher.

“They’re seven guys who all are contenders to win a national championship,” Keller said. “I am excited for each and every guy to have this opportunity.”

All seven reached the Lower Midwest Region finals, but were a combined 3-4 in the finals, another reason to give other teams hope.

“Our regional is by far the toughest regional in the country, so to have those seven in the finals that day punch their way through in the semis … they are seven guys who are locked in and real focused,” Keller said. “They are laser-focused, dialed in.

“This group is really excited to compete, and that has been apparent this past week.”

Keller said a turning point for the Knights came in early January when a COVID-19 break forced them to miss the NWCA National Duals.

“We had that window of time after Christmas when everything was kind of shut down,” Keller said. “We didn’t get to go to national duals, but at that point I felt it was kind of a crossroads for our season. Our minds collectively as a group were made up that we were going to use that time as a positive, and we did. It kind of springboarded us through the second half of the season into where we’re at now.”

Kyle Briggs, a sixth-year senior from Cedar Rapids, leads the Knights and is their lone top-ranked wrestler. He won the NWCA postseason tournament at 174 pounds last year and was unbeaten this year at 184 until the regional final. There, second-ranked Shane Liegel, last year’s NWCA champion at 184 for Loras, avenged a dual-meet loss and beat Briggs 6-0. That gave Liegel the top seed for nationals, while Briggs settled for the No. 2 spot.

Kristian Rumph (149 pounds) and David Hollingsworth (157), the NWCA champion last year at 157, were the only second-ranked Knights to win regional titles – Zayren Terukina also won at 141. Brady Kyner (125), Joe Pins (133) and Zane Mulder (174) each took second at the regional meet, Mulder in a medical forfeit to Loras’ Jacob Krakow. Rumph, Hollingsworth and Mulder are seeded second at their weights; Terukina and Pins are seeded third; and Kyner is fourth.

Mulder, a transfer from Iowa State who took second at 165 at last year’s NWCA (as did Kyner and Rumph), is part of an intriguing bottom half of the draw at 174. Returning All-Americans Krakow (the sixth seed) and third-seeded Michael Ross of Johnson & Wales were part of Wartburg’s 2017 freshman class, and they would meet in the quarterfinals if each wins his opener. Ross placed eighth for Wartburg at 165 as a freshman in 2018, while Krakow was eighth at 174 in 2019 after transferring to Loras.

Augsburg has just one national qualifier back from its 2019 championship team -- Solomon Nielsen – while the cancellation in 2020 denied four Augsburg seniors – David Flynn, Ryan Epps, Lucas Jeske and Lance Benick – the chance to repeat as individual national champions.

“That water’s under the bridge, and we can’t do anything about it,” Moulsoff said. “I think one of the cool things is everybody from that 2020 class, those alums, they’re all coming to the national championship in support of these guys.”

That group has given way to a younger lineup.

“We’ve got a relatively new team,” Moulsoff said. “Obviously Solomon is a big leader and has experienced that. For the kids it’s like them wanting to contribute to the program’s history. The expectation is to win. They’re excited about that.”

Nielsen (174 pounds) and heavyweight Tyler Kim were NWCA runners-up last year and were the Auggies’ two Upper Midwest Regional championships on Feb. 27. Nielsen is seeded fifth, Kim sixth. They also have fifth-seeded 157-pounder Tyler Shilson, who took third in the NWCA meet last March.
Moulsoff says his team is peaking at the right time.

“The kids are coming along,” he said. “We’re wrestling the best we have all year. We had a great (regional) tournament and still have a few more days to improve and prepare for the national championship.”

On its way to winning the regional team title, Augsburg had four runners-up – Derek Steele (125 pounds), Sam Stuhl (141), Nick Rogge (184) and Bentley Schwanebeck-Ostermann (197). Stuhl is seeded seventh, Steele eighth.

“We’re going to have to wrestle to or above our seeds,” Moulsoff said. “A big part of it is bonus points – I think this year bonus points are going to be huge. We work on that a lot, working on leads and not being happy just competing hard for seven minutes to get an opportunity to do your part for the team.

“If the kids do that, they’re going to wrestle to their seeds or above them, and that’s all we can ask right now is that opportunity to get out there and perform.

“We’re coming here in a different role. I think that’s a blessing that they don’t have anything to lose; they have everything to prove to everybody that the names at the weight classes are different, but the name across the front of their singlet still says the same, and that won’t be compromised.”


While Wartburg won the Lower Midwest Regional title and Augsburg prevailed in the Upper Midwest, they had to battle against some of the best teams in Division III.

The Lower Midwest Regional finals featured two No. 1 vs. No. 2 battles, seven other weights included the No. 2-ranked wrestler in the NWCA rankings and the other final saw fourth-ranked Terukina of Wartburg avenge an early-season loss by beating third-ranked Javen Estrada of North Central.

The Lower Midwest also is the home of one of the best and most exciting wrestlers in all of Division III who would like to make some history this weekend.

Millikin’s Bradan Birt not only is unbeaten in 37 matches this season, but few of them have even been close. He has pinned 22 of his opponents and has won 10 others by technical fall. If he can make it to the top of the podium – he is the top seed at 165 pounds -- he will follow in the footsteps of his father and coach at Millikin, Ryan Birt, the 1999 Division III champion at 184 pounds.

Birt wrapped up an unbeaten season last year by being named the Outstanding Wrestler after winning the NWCA title at 165 pounds.

Coe also has a pinning machine in Kaleb Reeves, ranked No. 2 and seeded second at heavyweight. All but four of his wins during a 27-0 season have come by fall.

With the Alliant Energy PowerHouse arena just a short walk down First Avenue East from the Coe campus, the Kohawks would enjoy nothing more than putting together the kind of postseason they enjoyed a year ago down the interstate in Iowa City when three of their wrestlers won NWCA titles. The path has had a few more hurdles this year, with unseeded national qualifiers Bryce Parke (133), Will Esmoil (165), Tristin Westphal (174), Ryan Schott (184) and Brock Henderson (141), the 133-pound NWCA champion last year; all advancing by claiming third place in the regional.

North Central’s five-man nationals contingent includes four wrestlers ranked in the top five.

Heading the list is unbeaten and top-seeded 133-pounder Robbie Precin, the NWCA runner-up at 133 pounds last year who has a pair of wins over No. 2 Pins this season. NWCA champion Cody Baldridge is No. 1 or No. 2, depending on which rankings you follow, at 197 pounds and also comes with a No. 1 seed. Estrada is the fourth seed at 141, and No. 5-ranked Alex Villar is the sixth seed at 149.

Loras, which placed second to Augsburg the last time the NCAA hosted the championships, could have a tough time placing that high again this year, but three of the Duhawks’ four qualifiers are ranked in the top six: Liegel (184), Krakow (174) and Zeke Smith, the eighth seed at 157.

Shandon Akeo has put together an unbeaten season for Central after cutting from 133 to 125 this season and is seeded third. Robert Areyano, seeded fifth for the Dutch, was the regional runner-up at 149. Another regional runner-up, Luther’s Donovan Corn, is seeded fifth at 197.

While the Upper Midwest Regional didn’t have quite as many highly-ranked wrestlers as the Lower Midwest, it did have two wrestlers ranked first in one of the polls.

Elmhurst’s Jimmy McAuliffe, a four-time national qualifier who won the NWCA title at 141 pounds last March, is seeded second at 141 this year. Meanwhile, Beau Yineman of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, placed third in the region at 197 and comes in as the fourth seed.

There is plenty of other talent in the region, too.

“I thought the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Conference – all those teams -- have very competitive programs,” Moulsoff said. “There’s a lot of parity.”

That makes the competition tougher each year.

“As they all continue to improve, it’s always good when you have to rise to the occasion, knowing that those guys are working just as hard and to be ready to get their best every time you step on a mat. You can’t look past them.”

Wisconsin-Eau Claire took a big step this season to take second behind Augsburg and qualify five individuals. Jake Drexler (149 pounds) was the lone champion for the Blugolds, who have three wrestlers ranked in the top 10: eighth-seeded Wartburg transfer Tyler Fleetwood at 133, Zach Sato (141) and seventh-seeded Chase Schmidt at 165.

The University of Chicago advanced four wrestlers, including Cedar Rapids native Ben Sarasin, who is ranked third at 174 pounds. The Maroons’ Darian Estevez is seeded seventh at 157.

Wisconsin-La Crosse, which won the NWCA National Duals title in January, has three qualifiers, all ranked in the top 10. Sixth-seeded Nolan Hertel (157 pounds) and fourth-seeded Seth Brossard (165), a two-time junior college national placewinner, won regional titles for the Eagles. Freshman heavyweight Ben Kawczynksi placed third in a regional weight class that included five of the top-10 wrestlers in Division III and is seeded eighth.

A pair of ranked fifth seeds also won Upper Midwest Regional titles. Matt Berlin of Wisconsin-Stevens Point won at 133, and Jarrit Shinhoster, a three-time national qualifier from Wisconsin-Whitewater, won at 184.


Wabash won the Central Regional team title, but Baldwin Wallace had the same number of national qualifiers. Both have title contenders among their seven qualifiers.

“The Central Regional was pretty much a dogfight between us and Baldwin Wallace,” Wabash Coach Brian Anderson said. “They have a phenomenal team, as always, and it was a great test that weekend.”
For Baldwin Wallace, the top hope is Ohio State transfer Jacob Decatur, the No. 1 seed at 125 pounds. The Yellow Jackets also have the third seed at 149 pounds, Michael Petrella, and the seventh seed at 184 in Lucas Salmon.

“Baldwin Wallace’s 125, Decatur, he’s in a great position; he’s rock solid,” Anderson said. “There’s one that can challenge for the whole thing.”

Like Millikin’s Birt, Petrella is trying to join his father in reaching the top of the podium. Paul Petrella was the Division III champion at 177 for Baldwin Wallace in 1978.

Wabash enters the tournament with three wrestlers holding top-three seeds: Max Bishop, No. 1 at heavyweight; Jack Heldt, No. 2 at 197 pounds; and Kyle Hatch, No. 3 at 165. Each has just one loss on the season.

Heldt will make his debut in the national meet, Bishop qualified in 2020 for the tournament that was canceled less than 24 hours before it was scheduled to start and Hatch is a two-time All-American who has qualified for the tournament four times.

“I know that (Hatch) came back for a reason,” Anderson said of the fifth-year senior. “Losing the 2020 season as the No. 1 seed in the field that year, he wants to finish on top.”

Bishop also came back for a fifth year with something to prove.

“Bishop was the four seed at the national tournament in 2020 and didn’t get to prove that,” Anderson said. “He has put together a great season and has wrestled some very stiff competition throughout the course of the year. He knows not to take anybody lightly and approach it one match at a time, and he wants to win it all, as well.”

Wabash has another returning All-American in seventh-seeded 125-pounder Carlos Champagne. Rounding out the Wabash lineup are unseeded Daniel Uribe at 141, Alex Barr at 149 and Chase Baczek at 184.

“I feel good about our guys,” Anderson said. “It’s an interesting mix with the last two seasons kind of being dead in the water, but we’ve got a nice mix of veterans, (and) we’ve got some newcomers that have been through a pretty stiff season this year.”

While Wabash and Baldwin Wallace dominated the team race, Anderson said there is plenty of individual talent at the other schools in the region.

“I’ll tell you what, as a region, the Central Region has a lot of guys that are in position to win individual national titles,” he said. “At 41, (top-seeded Jordin) James from Mount Union – he’s a national champ from 2019 – he’s back, and he’s in a great position to win the whole thing. At 74, (top-seeded Cornell) Beachem from Mount St. Joe, he is a very dominant 174-pounder in the country, and I could see him running away with it.”

Throw in Decatur and his three top wrestlers, and Anderson believes it could be a fun weekend for wrestlers from the Central Regional.


In the history of Division III wrestling few teams have roots as deep as The College of New Jersey.

Coached by the legendary David Icenhower, the Lions won five national team titles in the first 14 years of Division III competition. By the time the school changed its name from Trenton State to The College of New Jersey in 1996, it had amassed five titles, five runner-up finishes and three third-place finishes.

While the titles may have eluded them during the Augsburg-Wartburg era, the Lions still see the reminders of their wrestling history and would like to regain the top spot. Perhaps the first step was winning the team title on Feb. 27 at the Mideast Regional.

“They definitely see it on a daily basis – it’s all over the walls in the wrestling room, as far as the tradition and the All-Americans and the national champions and the national championship teams,” Galante said.

“We broke down how to win the nationals, and we looked at point values and what each guy needs to do. … They know what their job is and they have to go out and get bonus and they’ve got to keep pushing to score and wrestle hard, whether it’s the winners bracket or the consolation bracket. They’re more informed than we’ve ever informed a team on how to accomplish this goal. It’s in our sights, and we’re going to go after it.”

Galante is hoping the team can feed off a performance at the last national tournament, in 2019 in Roanoke, Virginia.

“Virginia was super fun,” Galante said. “We had an unseeded, one-time All-American national champion, which was very special, in Ryan Budzek at 149 pounds. He was on the team with a lot of the guys that are wrestling now, and I think he kind of opened their eyes to anything is possible.”

Galante doesn’t know if there is a Budzek on this year’s team, but he can’t wait to find out.

“There’s some very special guys on this team, too, and I’m thinking about a couple of them that could make very deep runs and really turn some heads doing it,” he said.

All six of the Lions’ qualifiers made the Mideast finals. Dominic Difrancescantonio (141 pounds), Quinn Haddad (197) and heavyweight Thomas Marretta. Haddad, the seventh seed, was a qualifier in 2020 when all the teams were working out in Cedar Rapids when the tournament was canceled less than 24 hours before it was scheduled to begin.

The other TCNJ wrestlers in the field are Michael Conklin (149), Matthew Sacco (157) and Daniel Surich (184).

“I think all six of our guys have the ability to be All-Americans,” Galante said. “The kids are healthy, they have level heads on them, we’re very focused on the process.

“I think the mood in the room is kind of unfinished business. Our guys are still very focused, and they’re happy with the weekend (winning the regional title). It was a fun weekend. We definitely battled in every bout, but we didn’t set any goals for the regionals. We set our goals for the NCAAs, and we’re still looking real forward to that.”

The Lions aren’t the only team from the Mideast Region that could make some noise in Cedar Rapids.

“We’re bringing the heat from the Mideast,” Galante said.

Top-ranked Kaidon Winters (157 pounds) of Rochester Institute of Technology leads the Mideast contingent. A four-time NCAA tournament qualifier and 2019 All-American, Winters has lost just once this season, and that was a 5-1 decision against Isaac Wilcox of Ohio State.

Others to watch from the Mideast are regional champions Matt Caccamise from Brockport at 125, a three-time national qualifier; J.C. Cardenas (133) of Cortland; Chandler Merwin (149) of Cortland; unbeaten and second-seeded Dominick Reyes (165), a three-time national qualifier from Johns Hopkins; seventh seed Demitreus Henry (174) of Cortland; unbeaten Eze Chukwuezi (184) of Ithaca, a three-time national qualifier who is seeded fourth; and sixth-seeded Jordan Wallace of Ithaca at 197.

“The teams out of the Mideast as a whole … I think we’re very different,” Galante said. “Everybody kind of has their specialty.

“For TCNJ, I think we’re consistent, we’re looking to score points, we’re always on the offense. Ithaca is very well coached – you’re going to find some very talented wrestlers coming from Ithaca. RIT has a hammer at 157 and a couple of other really solid competitors. Cortland has some funky guys that know how to scramble and can wrestle in some tough positions.”


Coach Kevin Bratland said the adversity his team went through during the regular season helped the U.S. Coast Guard Academy outdistance Johnson & Wales for the Northeast Regional title. The Bears came into the season after having one of the best performances at the 2021 NWCA postseason tournament.

“I tell you what, these guys at the Coast Guard Academy, they’re very, very resilient, and they handle adversity probably as well as anybody can,” said Bratland, who is returning to his home state for the national tournament. “They kind of just roll with the punches a little bit.

Hiccups along the way, injuries along the way, some COVID roadblocks, just so many things that go into a season, especially a wrestling season when it’s five, sixth months long, they just keep pushing through. Their hard work is evident in our performance at regionals, and I’m feeling real good about the five guys we’re taking to the national championships.”

Three of them earned top-four finishes last year at the NWA postseason event, and all three are unbeaten this year. Paul Detweiler is the No. 3 seed at 184; he took second at the NWCA meet last year, losing 4-1 to Loras’ Liegel in the championship match. Phil Rogers, the sixth seed at 165, took third in the NWCA meet at that weight. Tony Ulaszek, like Detweiler ranked third in the nation, placed fourth in the NWCA meet at 157 and Is seeded fourth at 149 this year.

A fourth unbeaten regional champion, Coy Spooner, is the third seed at 197.

“As everybody knows, it’s about showing up for two days and wrestling your best for two days because at this point, rankings and seeds and past performances don’t matter anymore,” Bratland said. “It’s two days that matter, so I think it’s going to be a real exciting tournament. Probably even more exciting than past years because we haven’t had one for two years.”

Like Coast Guard, Johnson & Wales had four champions and a third-place finisher at the Northeast Regional. Third seeds Ross (34-0) and heavyweight Liridon Leka (33-0) enter with unbeaten records, while fifth seed Justin Lopez is 16-1 at 125 and sixth seed Hayden Brown is 33-2 at 141.

The region boasts one other unbeaten wrestler in third seed Nathan Lackman (31-0) of Rhode Island College at 157 pounds.


Don’t expect to see any teams from the Southeast Regional in the hunt for the team title – nobody has the numbers – but don’t be surprised to see some of the wrestlers make deep runs.

Only two teams – Alvernia and Averett – qualified as many as four wrestlers, and Stevens Institute of Technology won the team title with just three qualifiers – all champions. But the 15 schools represented at nationals are the most of any region.

The region also features one of the best wrestlers in Division III.

Unbeaten in 25 matches, Brett Kaliner comes in ranked first at 149 pounds and has a win over Wartburg’s Rumph, the second-ranked wrestler at the weight. Kaliner exploded on the Division III scene by taking second place at nationals as a freshman and was third as a sophomore. He made it back to the tournament as a junior but didn’t place, then won the NWCA crown last year when the NCAA tournament was canceled for the second year in a row.

Also coming in with spotless records are Averett’s Sam Braswell (125 pounds), a three-time national qualifier who took third last year at the NWCA meet, and York’s second-seeded Dalton Rohrbaugh (133). Regional champions with just one loss this season are Washington & Lee’s fourth-seeded Ryan Luth at 157; Alvernia’s fifth-seeded Matt Lackman at 165; Roanoke’s eighth-seeded Mahlic Sallah, a transfer from Campbellsville where he was a 2020 NAIA All-American and a three-time national qualifier; and fourth-seeded John Fulmer of Lycoming at heavyweight.

Stevens come in with two other regional champions – fifth-seeded Kyle Slendorn at 141 and unseeded Stefan Major at 174 – while the final regional champion was unseeded heavyweight Camden Farrow of York.


Regardless of who winds up on top, teams are grateful just to have the national tournament back after back-to-back cancellations because of COVID-19.

“What we’ve dealt with the last two years, I won’t lie, 2020 was awful,” Anderson said, recalling being in the same arena that year as this year’s tournament. “To be less than 24 hours out from the start of that tournament, to get it yanked from us, and we were in position that year to possibly have two national champs in Hatch and Darden Schurg, who came back for a fifth year that year to win it again, I wouldn’t wish that upon anybody. I still can’t believe that happened that year.”

Now he is hoping his team can use that memory to its advantage.

“I think our veterans that lived through 2020 and last year feel blessed that they are in position again and things are going to move forward and we have a team that truly challenge for the whole thing, if not a top-four finish,” he said.
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