The NCAA championships are set to get underway this Thursday in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (just threw that in there since Ross added it to his Iowa and Iowa State previews, everybody knows that Ross!). UNI is coming off a third place finish at the Big 12 Championships this season, crowning one champion in Drew Foster, one runner-up in Taylor Lujan, and two third place finishes for Josh Alber and Bryce Steiert.
Qualifying six men for the NCAA tournament is a solid showing for the Panthers. Doug Schwab and company would, of course, like to have more, but a season-ending injury for All-American 197 pounder Jacob Holschlag, a near-season-ending injury for Carter Isley at heavyweight, and a gap in what was supposed to be an above-average wrestler at 133 pounds put them behind the eight ball a little bit this season.
As we move forward to Pittsburgh, we take a look at what might happen at each qualifying spot for the Panthers.
#21 Jay Schwarm
First Round Opponent: #12 Michael McGee (ODU)
Second Round Opponent: #13 Drew Hildebrandt (CMU) or #20 Gabe Townsell (Stanford)
The lowest seeded UNI wrestler, Schwarm has an uphill battle right out of the 12 seed McGee. The champion of the MAC, McGee was probably hoping to be seeded a little higher than 12, but with a lot of big names at the weight he was pushed down the list a little further. He’s now a two-time NCAA qualifier for ODU and he has four career wins against the 13 seed Hildebrant. With a Schwarm upset over McGee, using the transitive property, that bodes well for his chances against Hildebrant in the next round.
Where I think Schwarm will earn points for UNI is on the backside of the bracket. If he gets knocked out early, that won’t bode well for the Panther’s placement. Schwab and co. will look for him to come back on the consolation side and hopefully earn an extra point or two with pinfalls.
#4 Josh Alber
First Round Opponent: #29 Corey Shie (Army)
Second Round Opponent: #13 Kyle Shoop (Lehigh) or #20 Matt Findlay (Utah Valley)
We go from the lowest seeded to the highest seeded Panther in Josh Alber. Alber had a disappointing opening round of the Big 12 tournament, dropping a 5-3 sudden victory decision to Northern Colorado’s Chris Sandoval. He was able to come all the way back though, including defeating Sandoval in the consolation semifinals, to take third. And it’s better to drop a match in the opening round of your conference championship than the opening round of the NCAA championship.
Alber’s first round opponent shouldn’t prove to be too much of a problem. His second round match however, could be. Either man, Shoop or Findlay, could pose potential problems for Alber. Although the Panther defeated Shoop twice last season at the Southern Scuffle, both times with bonus points 18-3 and 16-3, Shoop is significantly better this season. Findlay hasn’t wrestled since January while dealing with an injury which included a forfeit to Alber. There’s no way of knowing if Findlay is healthy or not, and if he is, what his offense will look like against Alber.
Barring upsets, Alber will see Minnesota’s Mitch McKee in the quarterfinals. The Golden Gopher earned the six seed at Big 10’s and is just one spot below that for the national tournament after placing fourth earlier this month. Similar to Shoop and Findlay, McKee puts Alber in a difficult position, this time wrestling an opponent he is unfamiliar with. Again, barring an upset, Alber will be on track to face defending national champion Yianni Diakomihalis in the national semifinal.
Diakomihalis was Alber’s last loss before the Big 12 tournament; a 12-2 major decision back in December went the wrong way for the Panther. A lot has changed since then though, namely Alber rattling off 15 straight wins, and then four more on the backside of the Big 12 Tournament. If the seeds hold we’ll all get to see how much Alber has progressed since the middle of December.
#15 Max Thomsen
First Round Opponent: #18 Jared Prince (Navy)
Second Round Opponent: #2 Micah Jordan (Ohio State) or #31 Shayne Oster (NW)
If there is a gripe with the seeding for the Panthers, maybe it comes here with Max Thomsen. Although a less-than-stellar 7th place finish at the Big 12 Championship wasn’t the way that Thomsen wanted to end his season, it seemed to hurt him more than most when it came to seeding. Anyway, the Panther gets Navy’s Jared Prince and the two have some history: Thomsen defeated Prince 12-6 at the Cliff Keen Invite this season.
After that he’d have a much tougher match against (more than likely) Micah Jordan. These two also have a history: in 2017, after falling to the consolation semifinals, Thomsen lost to Jordan 13-5 to fall to the fifth place match. Similar to that same year, if Thomsen wins against Prince, he’ll be a 15 seed looking to upset a two seed, as Rutgers’ Kenney Theobold did against Oklahoma State’s Anthony Collica.
It’ll be an uphill climb for Thomsen, who has struggled at times to find offense this season. If he can put together another tournament similar to the Midlands this year, than there’s no telling how far he’ll go. Just going by recent results I would expect Thomsen to battle back through the backside of the bracket to reach the stand again.
#11 Bryce Steiert
First Round Opponent: #22 Bryce Martin (Indiana)
Second Round Opponent: #6 Logan Massa (Michigan) or #27 Troy Keller (Buffalo)
Bryce Steiert has looked good coming off his redshirt season, just not *quite* as good as everybody expected. Coming into the tournament seeded 11th, it seemed like, at the beginning of the year, he was expected to be much higher than that. A couple losses to Evan Wick and Demetrius Romero, as well as losses to Mekhi Lewis, Josh Shields, and Isaiah White have kept him from breaking through to that top tier at 165 pounds.
But his draw doesn’t set up too badly for him. He’ll wrestle Big 10 7th place finisher Bryce Martin in the first round, and barring an upset, get Logan Massa in the second. This is where Steiert’s redshirt season will pay off or not. Massa placed third at the Big 10’s this season and while he’s a formidable opponent, he’s not unbeatable. A win here and he is rewarded with a probably rematch with Arizona State’s Shields, who is the third seed.
Realistically I think that Steiert’s path to his first podium finish comes through the backside of the bracket, whether a loss comes to Massa, Shields, or someone else. How he responds on the backside is will determine how high he’ll finish on the podium.
#8 Taylor Lujan
First Round Opponent: #25 Hayden Hastings (Wyoming)
Second Round Opponent: #9 Devin Skatska (Minnesota) or #24 Lorenzo De La Riva (North Dakota State)
Lujan has had a really good season (again) for UNI. Another similarity to last season is his placement in the bracket, while he is one seed higher this year (8, compared to 7), with a pair of wins he would most likely see Mark Hall again in the quarterfinals. Hall won 6-2 last season over Lujan, who wasn’t able to hit very many attacks against
the stalling Hall (I kid, but only slightly. Go back and watch the match if you can, Hall certainly was not as aggressive as he had been). It’ll be interesting to see what adjustments Lujan has made since last season, but to ask him to get the win over Hall might be a little bit too much.
So, once again, I’d expect a Panther to have to earn his All-American status on the backside of the bracket. He fell last season in the bloodround to Jacobe Smith in a rematch of their Big 12 Conference championship match, and they met there again a couple weeks ago, with Lujan dropping the rubber match. Luckily, if everything goes to seed, the Panther and Cowboy won’t meet until the third place match. I fully expect Lujan to come out of the backside of the bracket (at least) and come away with his first All-American honor of his career.
#6 Drew Foster
First Round Opponent: #27 Christian LaFragola (Brown)
Second Round Opponent: #11 Lou Deprez (Binghamton) or #22 Mason Reinhardt (Wisconson)
Last but not least we have 2019 Big 12 Champion Drew Foster. 184 pounds has been a bit of a mess rankings-wise this season, with Foster ranked as high as 4th by Flowrestling and 10th by Intermat, in the same week (2/19). The senior is attempting to becoming a two-time All-American, after making the stand as a sophomore in 2017.
His draw this season seems to be very favorable. He’ll see Brown’s LaFragola in the opening round. The senior is now a three-time NCAA qualifier, placing fifth there both this season and last. Foster and LaFragola have never wrestled.
Next up for Foster would be either the 11 seed Deprez or the 22 seed in Reinhardt, both of whom Foster has defeated this season. His match with Deprez was at the Cliff Keen Invite back in November and the Panther ended things early with a fall in just 1:32. His match with Reinhardt went the distance but Foster again came out on top with a 7-3 win. There’s not really any reason why he wouldn’t be able to replicate either of those results on Thursday night.
Friday morning Foster would see another rematch, this time with third-seeded Zavatsky. These two have also met this season, with Foster coming out on top twice at the Cliff Keen 9-6 and 9-5. People do say that it is tough to beat a wrestler three times in one season so we’ll see if Foster can overcome those odds to make the semifinals Friday night.