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Nebraska-Kearney favored at Div. II Nationals in St. Louis, with Central Oklahoma and St. Cloud State in the mix

by Johnnie Johnson, Special to

Wesley Dawkins (Nebraska-Kearney) locks up a cradle. Photo by Corbey R. Dorsey, courtesy of Nebraska-Kearney Athletics.

After the NCAA D2 Super Region qualifiers, the team rankings and some individual ranking saw some important adjustments. Prior to the Regionals, the University of Central Oklahoma had sat atop of the D2 ranking for the better part of the 2021-22 season with defending champs St. Cloud State in second, Nebraska-Kearney in third, and West Liberty in fourth and McKendree rounding out the top five.

After the dust settled from the Super Region, Central Oklahoma fell to No. 2 in the national rankings behind Nebraska-Kearney in the final NWCA poll of the season.

In the rankings, the Lopers earned 115 points to move four points in front of UCO in the tournament-based scoring format. Two-time defending national champion St. Cloud State was ranked third with 95 points, followed by West Liberty (60 points) in fourth. Indianapolis (45 points) made the largest leap going from 10th up to fifth.

The 2022 NCAA Div. II Nationals, which will be held at the Chaifetz Center in St. Louis, March 11-12, is expected to be a close battle, with 180 individual qualifiers – 18 at each of the 10 weights – set to compete.

Of note, the UCO Bronchos beat UNK, 18-17, in a late-season road dual to win the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association dual title.

Top-ranked Nebraska-Kearney had one of its most dominant performances of the season as it scored 175.50 points to win Super Region VI Saturday in Grand Junction, Colo. UNK totaled nine national qualifiers, including eight champions, a second place and a fourth place finishers. Loper wrestlers had a combined mark of 33-3 at the Super Regional. That included seven falls, 10 tech falls and four major decisions. The Lopers 175.5 points is a new program record, besting the 148 set two years ago. It was their fourth year in a row.

Finishing first for UNK were were super-seniors Josh Portillo (125), Wesley Dawkins (133) and Matt Malcom (165 lbs.), senior Hayden Prince (197), redshirt juniors Austin Eldredge (174) and Lee Herrington (285), redshirt sophomore Nick James (141) and sophomore Billy Higgins (184). Placing second was super-senior Sam Turner (149).

In the final ranking, Nebraska-Kearney had two No. 1 wrestlers, in previous National Champion Matt Malcom (165) and Austin Eldredge (174). UNK has the most national qualifiers with nine and all nine are ranked in the top six in the nation. Coming in with a No. 2 seed is Wesley Dawkins (133).

Seven of No. 2 Central Oklahoma’s eight qualifiers are ranked in the top five, including six in the top three. Tanner Cole (133s and Dalton Abney (197) are ranked No. 1, while 125Paxton Rosen (125), 149 Brik Filippo (149) and Heath Gray (184) are second. Heavyweight Shawn Streck is third, The Bronchos have the second-most qualifiers with eight, along with No. 4 West Liberty, No. 8 Augustana and No. 11 Gannon.

Defending D-2 champion St. Cloud State won their sixth straight Super Region V Championship and advanced seven wrestlers to the NCAA Championships. Five Huskies earned individual Regional Titles: No. 6 Paxton Creese (125), No. 1 Joseph Bianchini (141), Nicholas Novak (149), No. 3 Anthony Herrera (157) and No. 2 Noah Ryan (197). No. 2 ranked Kameron Teacher took second at heavyweight while No. 3 Garrett Vos earned third at 133 to round out the Huskies' national qualifiers. Ahead of this week's NCAA Wrestling Championships, St. Cloud State had all seven qualifiers seeded in the bracket.

The No. 4 ranked West Liberty wrestling team ran away with its second consecutive Super Region 3 title and qualified eight wrestlers for the D- II Nationals in St. Louis. Six Hilltoppers reached the championship match at Super Regional, with Cole Laya (125), Ty McGeary (174), Connor Craig (184) and Francesco Borsellino (285) winning titles, and Tyler Warner (141) and Jordan Watters (149).

"This was a great day from start to finish for us," head coach Danny Irwin said. "Our guys just smashed the pedal to the floor from the opening whistle and never took their foot off the gas. I've never had a team qualify eight wrestlers for the nationals. We can't wait to get to St Louis."

The Hilltoppers racked up 142 team points against the Super Region 3 field, with Ashland a distant second at 111.5 with Lake Erie third at 104. Findlay and Tiffin tied for fourth place with 88 points each.

The U-Indy Greyhounds are coming off of a runner-up finish at the Super Region 4 Tournament with seven Indianapolis wrestlers set to compete at the Div. II Nationals. The No. 5 ranking is the highest for the Indianapolis since March 4, 2014, when UIndy was the #4 team heading into the 2014 NCAA Division II Championships. Ut also marks the second-highest ranking for the Greyhounds since the poll was originated in 1992.

Andrew Sams and Derek Blubaugh highlight the individual seeds for the Greyhounds, with both heading into Nationals at No. 3. Teammates Jack Eiteljorge (165) has earned a No. 4 seed while two-time All-American Dawson Combest is No. 7 at 157.

The Northern Sun Intercolegiate Conference tops the league race, with 20 ranked individuals and five teams in the Top 25. The MIAA is next with 18 ranked individuals, including four #1 seeds, and three teams in the Top 25. Both Conference Carolinas/Southern Athletic Conference and the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference have four teams in the Top 25.

Super Region five features six teams ranked in the top 25 behind 24 ranked individuals, accounting for almost a quarter of the field. Super Region one also has six teams in the Top 25, with 19 ranked individuals. Super Region four is next with 20 ranked individuals and five teams ranked in the Top 25.

NCAA Div. II No. 1 seeds

125 – Cole Laya (West Liberty), 23-3

133 – Tanner Cole (Central Oklahoma), 19-2

141 – Joey Bianchini (St. Cloud State), 26-0

149 – Isiah Royal (Newberry), 10-0

157 – Anthony Herrera (St. Cloud State), 17-1

165 – Matt Malcom (Nebraska-Kearney), 26-2

174 – Austin Eldredge (Nebraska-Kearney), 23-4

184 – Connor Craig (West Liberty), 10-0

197 – Dalton Abney (Central Oklahoma), 22-0

285 – Andrew Dunn (Kutztown), 20-0

NCAA Div. II returning national champions

125 - Cole Laya (West Liberty)

133 - Tyler Warner (West Liberty), Now at 141 pounds

141 - Isiah Royal (Newberry) 13-1, Now at 149 pounds

184 - Heath Gray (Central Okla.)

285 - Kameron Teacher (St. Cloud St.)

2021 NCAA Div. II top 10 teams

1 St. Cloud St., 107.0

2 Neb.-Kearney, 105.5

3 Lindenwood 72.5

4 West Liberty 72.0

5 McKendree, 71.5

6 Central Okla., 65

7 Ashland 48.0

8 Colorado Mesa, 31.0

9 Gannon, PA 30.5

10 Minnesota St., 25.0