Evaluating UNI after runner-up finish at The Midlands

UNI 2nd Place

UNI Stands on the podium after it’s 2nd place finish at the 2018 Midlands Championships

With UNI wrestlers coming back from a second place finish at the Midlands (sorry, the official name is the 56th Annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championships), including two champions in Josh Alber and Drew Foster, I thought it’d be a good time to look at where they sit going into the majority of their dual competition, Big 12 tournament, and the NCAA’s.

The Panthers are 1-2 on the year in duals, falling to Pittsburgh and Cornell, but winning their Big 12 opener against West Virginia. No individual wrestler is undefeated, but two Panthers have just two losses on the season, Taylor Lujan (14-2) and Drew Foster (15-2), and Max Thomsen (12-3) has just three.

So lets the get the bad out of the way to begin with. Pretty much everybody knew that 133 and 157 pounds would be the weights that needed the most improvement from last season. The lighter of the two weights was supposed to have been Rudy Yate’s spot for the second year now. But after coming in overweight last season, he wrestled in just one dual for the Panthers (a 6-3 loss to North Carolina’s Zach Sherman) and is no longer on UNI’s roster. Instead, UNI wrestled Jack Wagner for most of last season and the former Hawkeye had only one win in dual competition, going 7-19 overall.

This season the starting spot has gone to Jacob Schipper and Jack Skudlarczyk, both redshirt freshman who are both looking for their first wins in dual competition. Schipper has seen more action this season, going 7-6, but Skudlarczyk wrestled more recently – against Cornell. Getting both of these guys experience is good, but no matter who UNI puts on the mat though they need to see major improvement.

The same can be said at 157 pounds. Going into the year we assumed that Paden Moore and Isaiah Patton would battle it out for the starting spot, but we haven’t seen either in varsity action. Instead we have another young face on the mat, as redshirt freshman Pat Schoenfelder is the starter. Schoenfelder has gone just 4-13 on the year, and with Dan Kelly and Keaton Geerts’ status’ unknown, it seems like he’s the guy at 157. I don’t know if it needs to be said, but these two weights are major holes in the UNI lineup. Moore has been seen with a big knee brace on one leg, but nothing’s been confirmed yet.

taylor lujan brit wilson

Taylor Lujan cradles Northern Illinois’ Brit Wilson for a fall in the Midlands 174 pound semifinal match.

Moving on to some positives! Taylor Lujan is looking as good as he ever has at 174 pounds. The reigning Big 12 Champion (people seem to forget that) is 14-2 with his only losses coming to #4 Daniel Lewis and #2 Zahid Valencia. 13 of Lujan’s wins include bonus points and he has 9 falls on the year. There’s not a lot to say about Lujan because there’s so much to say about Lujan. He goes out and takes care of business in his Georgia-way: usually with something weird and it cannot be properly described with English words. Before last weekend I would have said that 174 is probably UNI’s most solid weight, and if he could get past the top four guys he would be one of the best in the country. As it sits now Lujan is in that next tier of guys at 174.

Then you get to 184, where Drew Foster, also the reigning Big 12 Champion, is 15-2 on the year and carries a #6 ranking by The Open Mat. Foster has taken down Zack Zavatsky (twice) and Louie DePrez, both of whom are in the top 10. He’ll get the chance later this season to avenge a loss to Nebraska’s Taylor Venz (an 11-8 win for the Cornhusker) when UNI travels to Nebraska for a dual.

184 Pound Final - Drew Foster vs Cash Wilcke13

UNI’s Drew Foster reaches for a shot in the 2018 Midlands Champion match at 184 pounds

Coming off a championship performance at the Midlands, winning four of five matches by bonus points and defeating Iowa’s Cash Wilcke in a match that never really felt close, Foster solidified himself as a top five guy in the country at 184 pounds. A rematch with Venz looms next week and with a win there Foster will solidify his position as a legitimate national championship threat.

149 and 165 are in similar situations. Max Thomsen did make the finals of the Midlands like Lujan did. And, like Lujan, Thomsen ran into the number one ranked wrestler in the country (well, Valencia’s not number one, but he was like three weeks ago so I’m counting it) in Matt Kolodzik. The Princeton wrestler was able to fend of Thomsen’s attacks more effectively than nearly every other opponent this year and get one of his own for a close 3-1 win.

max thomsen alec pantaleo

Max Thomsen looks for an opening against Michigan’s Alec Pantaleo in the 149 pound semifinal of the 2018 Midlands Championship

Thomsen’s inability to finish attacks is becoming somewhat of a pattern against better opponents (he was in a similar situation against North Carolina’s Troy Heilmann last season), but it seems like he’s in a log jam in the rankings; After the top three (Kolodzik, Anthony Ashnault, and Micah Jordan) the next seven seem like they could be ranked in any order, on any given day. Thomsen is wrestling healthy for the first time in a year, so maybe he just needs that experience and he got that and more against Michigan’s Alec Pantaleo, getting to his outside single almost with ease, so maybe my “pattern” idea isn’t a very good one. As it stands now Thomsen is, at worst, a top 10 wrestler in the country.

At 165 Bryce Steiert is coming off his well-known redshirt year, where he wrestled just 11 times in open tournaments, and while he is 13-4 I’m not sure he’s quite living up to fans’ high expectations. Starting with a pair of losses to Wisconsin’s Evan Wick, 3-2 in November at the Cyclone open and then again 9-0 against the Badger at the Midlands. Wick was ranked as high as #2 in the country, so a loss there isn’t a surprise, nor is it anything to be looked down on, but it would have been a big boost to not only himself but to Schwab’s reputation of building a wrestler up over the years they’ve been at UNI.

bryce steiert evan wick

Evan Wick covers Bryce Steiert on a restart in their semifinal match at the 2018 Midlands Championship

Steiert has had some big wins this season though, most recently he took down Arizona State’s redshirting Anthony Valencia by major decision, 10-1, and has also defeated Missouri’s Connor Flynn, and top-20ish contenders in Old Dominion’s Kellen Ekern and Pittsburgh’s Jake Wentzel. However his lack of a victory of a top-10 wrestler (this season) has left him as a fringe All-American candidate at best.

The last weight I’d really like to go in-depth on is 141, where Josh Alber just won the Midlands title. One of two seniors on the starting roster, Alber has gone 17-4, dropping a few matches to men ranked above him. The Midlands was a big bounce-back opportunity for Alber: before the tournament he had lost by major decision to defending national champion Yianni Diakomihalis, 12-2, in a dual match at home. But Alber made the most of his number one seed in Chicago, winning every match along the way to wrestling to his seed. The win over Iowa’s Max Murin in the finals was a little chippy (mostly coming from Murin), but the Panther stayed calm in a way that I can’t remember seeing before, and then let out all his emotions after the match.

The biggest thing with Alber is that occasionally he drops a match he shouldn’t. Whether that’s a mental thing or something else, I’m not sure. However, this season, or at least last weekend, he appeared to be laser focused and went out and took care of business. There’s no question that he is the favorite in the Big 12 at 141 pounds, with Bryce Meredith and Dean Heil graduated from their respective schools, and another championship effort from Alber would go a long way if UNI has any hope of dethroning Oklahoma State down in Tulsa.

Dropping down to 125 seems to be either feast or famine for UNI, as the Panthers Jay Schwarm has been involved in eight matches decided by bonus points – and he’s 5-3 in those matches. While going 5-5 overall, Schwarm has showed that he can win big; he’s a funky wrestler who is never afraid to put himself in compromising positions to try to secure a fall, but he can be caught in those spots too, and that’s where he’ll lose matches that he, on paper, should win. Points at 125 are going to be important in future duals, where a loss could mean the difference between a Panther win or loss, and at the Big 12 Tournament, again if UNI has hopes of taking home a first-place trophy they’ll need all their wrestlers to earn as much as they can.

As for the upper weights…well that’s an issue. At 197 pounds UNI’s fourth-ranked wrestler Jacob Holschlag has a knee injury and will be out the rest of the season. In his place true freshman Tyrell Gordon has found a spot, and he’s 12-4 on the year. He won his opening match, 4-2, against Cornell’s Jacob Taylor, and has some great defensive capabilities. However he went just 1-2 at The Midlands and I haven’t seen any real offense from him yet. Gordon is a very young wrestler though still and hopefully with time he’ll be able to develop into the role that UNI needs him to be.

And at heavyweight Carter Isley is currently on the sideline with a knee injury as well. He was hurt during the UNI open, when Iowa Central’s Amari Latimer ran a mat return on the edge. The Panther’s have elected to put Izaak Shedenhelm at heavyweight in Isley’s place rather than pulling the redshirt off either John McConkey or Bryce Esmoil, both true freshmen. Shedenhelm has gone 0-3 at his new weight and cannot be UNI’s long-term (or really, medium-term) solution to Isley’s injury. Health at heavyweight has been a problem for the Panthers in the past and going forward they have to find a way to keep them on the mat.

And that’s the lineup! Overall UNI is a fairly confounding team – on the one hand they’ve got some great wrestlers, who maybe just can’t break through that final barrier, but because of injuries and attrition they’re not the most-solid dual or tournament team. The runner-up finish at the Midlands has given a lot of hope to the fact that they’re able to score a lot of points in a tournament setting, but as the Pittsburgh dual loss points out, they’re also able win all of the matches they’re “supposed” to and still drop a dual.

Disagree with any of my assessments? Drop a comment below! Totally agree with me? Drop a comment below! You can also find me on Twitter @Nic_Ryder if that’s your bag.