I was trying to come up with a nice way to ease into the recap for the 2015-16 Panther season, but there really isn’t a good way to do it.
The season was rough. Very rough.
Fans wanted to see a team recapture some of the magic they had seen from the 2013-14 season: they were the only team to go undefeated, and their perfect 12-0 season was capped off with a third place finish from 133 pounder Joe Colon at the NCAA Tournament. Instead they saw an early loss to Purdue, their first home loss in 12 matches, a 5-3 conference finish and no All-Americans to end the year.
Instead they saw the program go winless at home and just 4-10 overall. They had a losing record in conference duals. They lost to instate rival Iowa State and gave up the programs first loss to Eastern Michigan. And then they had a conference champion, a conference runner-up and a conference third place finisher. They had an All-American, and he did it on one leg. The Panthers battled back through adversity and injuries, and while not all of them made it this season they look to come out on the other side with the right attitude and mental toughness to have a better seasons ahead.
“I think…this is a special place. We have some special people that are in these positions (being a student-athlete),” UNI Head Coach Doug Schwab said. “How they handle the losses and defeates, says a lot more than how they handle the good times. I couldn’t be more proud to be a Panther. I couldn’t be more proud to have the kids that I do to represent our program.”
Expectations were pretty high for the Panthers coming into this season. After the setbacks of the previous year everybody was expected to come in healthy. There were a couple lineup changes, most notably at 157 pounds, where true Freshman Bryce Steiert would take over for Jarrett Jensen, who would drop down to 149 pounds for his senior year. Jensen would never wrestle there though; he had season-ending shoulder surgery early in the year.
165 pounder and two-time defending MAC Champion Cooper Moore was sidelined for a little while at the beginning of the season due to a lingering issue with his elbow, but he was expected back fairly early at the beginning of the season and ready to go. Moore would be in and out of the lineup this season, suffering a concussion at The Midlands, an illness against Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan, and an ankle injury that he suffered against Iowa State that still bothered him during his 1-2 performance at the NCAA tournament.
The bookends – 125 pounder Dylan Peters and 285 pounder Blaize Cabell – looked to have stellar years. And while the lightweight got back to the podium to become a two-time All-American, Cabell would miss his final chance at earning that honor.
As had been true last season the wrestlers at 141, 149, 174, 184, and 197 pounds struggled. Some with season-ending injuries, some career ending injuries.
Although there were bright spots, some of which I highlighted below, and the coaching staff and team remain positive.
“Everybody talks about adversity, ‘oh it had to be so hard,’ no man,” Schwab said “I love coaching. I love our guys. What they give to me and the program and what the University is incredible. So for me to ever put my head down because we’ve had some adversity.”
“No way. That won’t happen.”
“We’ll just keep our mouths shut and keep working.”
The biggest highlight of the season came from Dylan Peters, who battled back after tearing his ACL to earn his second All-American honor of his career, taking home sixth place at 125 pounds. Peters sat out nearly two months after his injury occurred, back at the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas, but still managed to go 20-4 and make his way back to the medal stand, winning his bloodround and round of eight matches by pinfall.
“He never told us how bad it was hurting either, and now I found out it was really bothering him, it was really hurting him bad, but he made up his mind,” Schwab said of his lightweight. “It shows when someone is willing to make their mind up that you can do incredible things.”
At 285 pounds Blaize Cabell put on a show all season, going undefeated in MAC duals and the MAC Tournament to take home the top spot in the conference. He defeated eighth-ranked Billy Smith from Rutgers in the third dual of the year, and went 22-8 on the year.
He fell to eventual fourth place finisher Ty Walz 5-2 in a dual, but was 2-1 against the Hokie in his career and would have faced him in the NCAA tournament’s second round, but Cabell contracted the mumps and did not travel with the team to New York City. Obviously this was one of the toughest moments to get through this season, and to have it come at the worst time of the year was the icing on a very bad, very moldy cake.
“That was a really hard phone call, we didn’t get the results until Tuesday, and even if he was symptom free they weren’t going to let him compete,” Schwab said of his heavyweight. “It’d been a long time since I cried, but I cried on that phone call.”
Cabell capped off his career at UNI going 81-39, including 20-3 in conference duals, with those three loses coming his sophomore year. He was a three-time NCAA qualifier, conference champion, and single-handily had more takedowns in a match this year than an entire opposing team (12, against Missouri). Although it ended in one of the worst ways possible he will always be remembered as one of the best heavyweights to come from UNI.
Freshman Josh Alber at 133 pounds looked to join a list of young Panthers who had good success in Cedar Falls. After having knocked off the MAC Champion last season at the UNI Open, he was one of the early favorites to win the weight this season, but ended up needing a wildcard to make the NCAA tournament in March. The highlight of his season came in December, when he placed 2nd at The Midlands Tournament, a loss he would later get back against ODU’s Emilio Saavedra. Alber went 25-12 overall this season.
I though Alber competed really hard, wrestled really well the first match,” Schwab said of his 133 pounder. “I’m excited for him and his future, being a freshman, seeing the type of competitor he is and knowing the few areas that he needs to really improve on. We already have a plan together and we’re going to have him so he’s not watching on Saturday next year.”
True freshman Bryce Steiert jumped in right away at 157 pounds and was the first Panther of the season to earn MAC Wrestler of the Week honors. He placed second in the MAC tournament earning his automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, defeating top-ten ranked Luke Smith from CMU twice along the way, getting back a loss he took to the Chippewa in a dual meet earlier in the season. Steiert made some great advances throughout the season and should be even better next year.
“Steiert won three matches as a true freshman. That’s a good thing for us. I thought the first two matches he wrestled as well as he had all year. He was really having fun too, he was enjoying it, enjoying the atmosphere. It is a really long season, four months, so for a true freshman to be able to handle that the way he did, I’m proud of him and I’m really looking forward to his future.”
Cooper Moore qualified for his third straight NCAA Tournament after taking 3rd at the MAC Championships and going 5-0 in MAC duals. The junior was in and out of the lineup most of the year with the aforementioned injuries, and went 1-2 at the NCAA tournament. Moore did get a win over #8 Tanner Weatherman from Iowa State in the Panthers dual with the Cyclones at home.
Four of the five NCAA Qualifiers come back for the Panthers next season, including seniors-to-be Peters and Moore. Hopefully they’ll both be back 100% the entire season next year, but if not UNI does have some options. At 125 redshirt freshman Jay Schwarm waits behind Peters and 165 pounds has Isaiah Patton waiting in the wings. If those two are called on early I’d look for them to do well, but the seniors should be locks for their spots in 2016-17.
Alber comes back at 133 pounds, as does 141 pounder Jake Koethe, who scored a pair of wins over top-17 ranked wrestlers this season. Koethe went out with a knee injury in January. Look for Koethe to be pushed by Jake Hodges, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them split time early next season.
149 pounds will be up in the air, as Max Thomsen, Hunter Washburn, and Daniel Kelly will all fight for time at the weight. Thomsen has perhaps the most name recognition, but Kelly is a tough wrestler and transferred to UNI after a semester at Iowa State, so whoever cracks the lineup here will be tested.
For now Steiert looks to hold down the 157 pound spot. Although he didn’t redshirt last season that could always be used if the coaches feel it necessary for his growth. The other name that really jumps out at me at 157 is Paden Moore, Cooper’s brother, who may push for some starting time early on. The most important thing for Steiert to work on in the offseason is getting up from the bottom position.
At 174 there are a pair of freshmen that fans should be pretty excited about in Jacob Holschlag and Taylor Lujan. They both had really nice days at The Midlands (although neither placed), and both had very nice redshirt seasons overall, Holschlag knocking off number 16 Matt Reed from Oklahoma and Lujan going 11-3 overall. It wouldn’t surprise me to see one of them bumping up to 184 pounds, because as we’ll see, 184 is pretty bare.
The only 184 pounder still on the roster next season will be Adam Drain, as I think the starter for the second half of the season this season, Kyle Lux, will bump back down to 174 pounds. Lux did a good job filling in, but the hole left by Caldwell was just too big for the smaller Lux to fill. I’d expect some of the 174 pounders to bump up to the bigger weight, but who emerges from that we’ll have to wait and see.
Heavyweight will see South Dakota State transfer JJ Everard come in and take over for Cabell. Everard is a bit bigger heavyweight, so we might not see quite the same action we saw from Cabell, but he is an active big man and isn’t afraid to score points.
Overall I think next years squad should be better than this seasons. The young guys have a year of experience under their belts and should want to prove that last seasons’ successes weren’t a one-off. The older guys have one last chance to make the podium in March. Expectations won’t be any lower than they were coming into last season, but hopefully there will be fewer injuries and the squad can get 10 guys in the lineup who will wrestle consistent, tough matches.
“I am excited about the future, what we bring to the table,” Schwab said. “We have a good young group, we have guys that are hungry, we have guys that are progressing. Now throughout the spring and summer we have to put a plan together for these guys to develop them and make them better in their areas. I like how some of these guys are talking about making it their team, it needs to come from them. I’m excited about the team that we’re going to put out there.”