We’re more than a week past the NCAA tournament, and now seems as good as time as any to look back on the 2021 season that was.

I think the last time I did one of these was in 2017-18, when UNI crowned one All-American at the big tournament, claimed second at the Big 12 tournament, and went 6-5 on the season. I went with “disappointing” as the one word to wrap up that season.

This year I’m going with optimistic. Let’s get into why.

Tournament Positives

The biggest and most obvious positive came at the end of the season, when Parker Keckeisen took 3rd place at the NCAA Tournament. Taking down Iowa State’s Sam Colbray in the opening round for the second time this season and Virginia Tech’s Hunter Bolen in the quarterfinal, Keckeisen made the national semifinals before falling to #1 seeded Aaron Brooks from Penn State. And that would be his only loss on the season, as Keckeisen would come back for third place.

The redshirt freshman’s only loss on the season was to the eventual national champion. So, yeah, optimistic.

Now to be fair Keckeisen didn’t wrestle during UNI’s dual with Missouri. Keegan Moore stepped in at 184 pounds for the non-conference dual in Ames, so we don’t know how Keckeisen would have done at that stage in his season against #19 Jeremiah Kent.

I’m going to say he would have won, but we don’t know for sure.

The other big positive from UNI’s weekend in St. Louis was Brody Teske. Sure, the redshirt sophomore didn’t place, but his losses in the tournament were to guys who finished third and fourth. Teske only had one other loss on the season, to Brandon Courtney, who took second. A bad draw for sure, but if you watch Teske wrestle you can see that the talent is there and it’s pretty clear that if he keeps his head on straight, he’ll be UNI’s next All-American.

Maybe he could stop giving up the first takedown in his matches, just to help not give fans a heart attack, but as long as he keeps winning it’s tough to complain.

Other tournament positives? Carter Isley won a match on the frontside that a lot of people (including, maybe, myself) had written him off for. Isley looked uninterested and, dare I say, bored, at the Big 12 Championships. Whether that’s due to an injury, the stress of the COVID season, nearly being done with school, or just because he’s always wrestling guys who are larger than he is, I don’t know. But the Panther fell one match short of earning an automatic qualifier spot for the NCAA tournament and had to receive an at-large bid.

Isley took down Hunter Catka in the opening round of the tournament, 3-1, then had his best match of the season against Illinois’ Luke Luffman on the backside of the bracket, putting together a series of attacks that would have made any 125 pounder proud. Isley went down in the next match, where he appeared to be limping a bit at one point in the match.

Isley has confirmed that he’ll be back for next season for the Panthers. Hopefully the last (presumably) season for the grandpa of the team will come back with renewed energy in 2022.

Austin Yant and Triston Lara had good showings at the NCAA tournament as well. Each winning a match on the frontside of the bracket (Yant’s in the pigtail match, but still) before falling in the consolation round. Yant picked up another win on the backside as well. Part of the problem with Yant was that he was out most of the season with injury, as Patrick Schoenfelder took up the 165 pound starting spot. And while serviceable, Schoenfelder didn’t have any notable wins—he went just 3-6 on the year—and Yant won the wrestle-off at the end of the season, so it’s pretty clear who’s weight it is going forward.

Lara has gotten better throughout the season, culminating with his pinfall win over ISU’s Jarrett Degen in the UNI-ISU dual meet to keep the Panthers within striking distance. Now Lara would lose to Degen at the Big 12 championships, but he still qualified for St. Louis. The thing from Lara is consistency—get to attacks and finish them, don’t let guys hang around. Lara made significant strides this season and his headlock is reason enough to tune into his matches.

So, yeah, optimistic.

Season Positives

First up, UNI had zero positive COVID-19 tests all season. And it did not have to cancel or postpone any single event due to issues within its program. That should probably be celebrated, at least a little bit.

On the regular season the Panthers went just 4-4 overall, and 3-2 in the Big 12. The biggest win came against #16 Oklahoma, a 23-13 dual victory capped off by Lance Runyon’s pinfall win over #11 Anthony Mantanona (we’ll get more into Runyon’s season later). UNI had wins over South Dakota State, North Dakota State, and Northern Illinois. Losses came to Missouri, Oklahoma State, Arizona State, and Iowa State.

As an aside, UNI’s dual with Missouri was the first time the Panthers faced a lineup where all 10 opponents were ranked since…well I don’t know. It’s been years, at least 3, since that’s happened.

The conference wins against SDSU and NDSU are expected at this point, at least by me. Those three schools are on a much more equal playing field in other sports, but in wrestling the Panthers should almost always walk away with victories. UNI was on top of the Western Wrestling Conference for the majority of the time that existed, so I fully expect them to be on top of the remnants of that conference in the Big 12.

While the Panthers’ finish at the Big 12 Tournament was disappointing, they did crown two Big 12 Champions in Teske and Keckeisen, continuing a dominating run in the Big 12 at 184 pounds—UNI has won the weight every year since joining the conference.

So keep doing that.

The Not So Good Stuff

It’s been a goofy year, to say the least. Because of COVID, the NWCA voted to start the wrestling season after January 1st (even though, as far as I can tell, the NWCA actually has no official standing in NCAA Division I wrestling. Not all DI coaches are even in the NWCA) so everybody only had about half of a regular season. So, obviously, keep that in mind with what I’m about to say.

The Panthers dropped four duals on the season. In three of the losses—against Missouri, Oklahoma State, and Arizona State—they won just nine matches. Winning nine out of 30 matches in any three-dual stretch isn’t going to win you many duals, or any really, but against those three top-ten opponents especially.

The biggest thing kind of shoving itself out there was Oklahoma bouncing back from a .500 season (the Sooners went 5-5 and just 2-4 in the Big 12) to winning the Big 12 tournament title in a tie with Oklahoma State. The Sooners had the tournament of the last 9 seasons in Tulsa, ending the Cowboy’s streak of 9 consecutive outright conference wins.

And while you could say that if OSU wasn’t docked a point on Saturday Oklahoma wouldn’t have won, well there’s a line about if my aunt had three wheels, she’d be a tricycle.

Anyway, Oklahoma just proved that no matter how mediocre a regular season you have, come tournament time, all bets are off.

Meanwhile back in Cedar Falls, wrestle-offs seem to be a significant source of frustration for some fans. With so many fewer opportunities to wrestle against other opponents, UNI’s coaching staff relied on wrestle-offs to determine starting lineups at least twice throughout the season; to start the season, which everybody mostly expects, and then later to determine who would represent the Panthers in the postseason, which some people were surprised to hear.

In that second set of wrestle-offs Kyle Biscoglia, who had held down the 133 pound spot most of the season and went 7-3, lost to Jack Skudlarczyk. Skudlarczyk won one varsity match all season (against NDSU’s Kellyn March) until wrestling in the Big 12 Championship, where he went 1-2, and his one win was by injury default.

That’s going to sound like a knock against Skudlarczyk, but I really don’t mean it to be. Skudlarczyk is coming off a 15-13 season where he qualified for the NCAA tournament. It’s not like he’s a scrub. He was the favorite to be at 133 pounds starting the year, and indeed he did. I don’t know all the inner-workings of the room, but it would appear that Biscoglia won the spot from him for the regular season, and the end-of-year wrestle-off might have been a part UNI’s plan all season.

Whether or not you think there should have been a wrestle-off at the end of the regular season, well that’s up to you. Either way, there’s a bit of a logjam at 133.

In what was a wrestle-off-but-not-in-the-room came at 141 pounds before the UNI-ASU-ISU duals, where Drew Bennett lost a 6-1 match in the first tiebreaker to Ethan Basile. The freshman from Florida went 8-4 on the season, but only won one match as a starter, against ASU’s Peter Lipari.

Bennett had gone just 2-6 on the year to that point, and would not wrestle again in a UNI singlet. On March 16th, just two days before the NCAA tournament, Bennett announced that he was entering the transfer portal.

Bennett is the second Panther to transfer out of UNI in as many years, as last season Michael Blockhus left for the University of Minnesota. That was certainly the most high-profile transfer in Schwab’s tenure and Bennett’s is right behind.

The one NCAA qualifier I haven’t talked about yet is Lance Runyon. Runyon busted out on the scene when he pinned #11 Anthony Madrigal during the UNI-Oklahoma dual and helped propel the Panthers to a win there. That boosted his record to 4-1 on the year and he looked to be on the way up. But he went just 2-4 in matches where he took the mat after that (one was a injury default at the Big 12 Championship).

But the reason why Runyon is tucked away down here in the Not So Good section is because he was injured at the end of the season. His shoulder is going to require surgery, and with the history of Panthers who have been injured over the years it’s really unknown whether or not Runyon will be able to come back at full strength. 174 pounds has been a solid slot in the lineup for the past several years and Runyon will be needed moving forward.

The Panthers seemed to be a firm contender for third in the Big 12 going into March based off of dual results, but injuries and last-minute lineup changes stifled some of that. UNI finished fifth, falling behind Wyoming and finishing just one point ahead of North Dakota State.

To boost that finish they need to get more out of every weight and they cannot have guys going 0-2 at any weight. Schwab has talked about finding more points for the Big 12’s and that starts with finding guys who can win matches at every single weight.

Overall and Next Year

It’s always tough to evaluate a wrestling season overall. Was it a success? As Schwab said when I asked him that last Monday at his weekly press conference, it depends on how you define success.

For many coaches, a season won’t be a success until they get all ten guys on top of the podium at NCAA’s. So, for them, there’s never been a successful season, ever.

As Schwab pointed out time after time early in the year, not a lot of people were talking about UNI’s squad going into the year, and if they were, it was about the four former Ft. Dodge wrestlers who were in the starting lineup. Well, we’re down to three now, with two who qualified for the NCAA Championships

But people are talking about UNI now. Teske was a name at the start of the season, but he’s been eclipsed by his teammate Keckeisen. Hopefully that raises Teske’s level a bit—not that he’s a scrub by any means, again his only losses on the season came to the guys who finished 2nd, 3rd, and 4th at the national tournament.

Lara can pin anyone with his headlock. A healthy Yant competes all season, gets a higher seed, and wins at least a couple more matches in the postseason. Runyon burst onto the scene as well. Isley’s last go-around should be a good one.

The season was a disjointed because of the delayed start and all the changes due to COVID-19. There’s no way to know how the season would have played out without those changes, and there’s not much use in dwelling on it, all we can do is look at what happened and try to learn from it.

I know I wrote more on the Not So Good things than positives, but that’s because a lot of those Not So Goods required explanation. I don’t think there’s anything there that is completely broken.

There’s reason for optimism looking at UNI’s 2021 season and I would expect a lot more people to be interested in the Panthers come 2022.

 

What were your thoughts on UNI’s 2020 season? Drop a comment or hit me up on Twitter, @Nic_Ryder, and let me know! 

One thought on “Evaluating Northern Iowa’s 2020 Season”
  1. A perfect summary of the season, in my mind. You wrote about everything in a fair and impartial way, and I wouldn’t add a thing…well, except for ONE thing: Runyon.

    I NEVER slam the hometown team, so this isn’t bad mouthing my team. Runyon (and the coaches?) should also have another negative comment, in that how he took someone’s spot at the Big Dance, all the while knowing that he was going to default out of his first two matches. I’ll hold open the possibility that they didn’t know for sure if he’d default, but he never even took the mat, which only (only) suggests that that was the plan. If so, that shouldn’t have happened.

    Good review, Nic.

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