Can someone else stop the Big Three: Augsburg, La Crosse and Wartburg?

Updated: November 2, 2010

By Jim Nelson

Another Division III wrestling season is just around the corner and a familiar picture is already starting to develop.

Defending team champion Augsburg does not have one top-ranked wrestler. Orlando Ponce (right) is tabbed No. 2 at 165 pounds.

While teams such as Ithaca College and Delaware Valley have been knocking on the proverbial trophy door the past few seasons and with a new Midwestern power emerging in Coe College, it still appears the big three — defending national champion Augsburg College, Wisconsin-La Crosse and Wartburg College — will be the three to beat this spring when La Crosse, Wisc., hosts the national championships.

All three programs bring back multiple All-Americans, while Coe and Delaware Valley each took some graduation hits.

However, what is on paper doesn’t and won’t tell the whole story by March according to Wartburg coach Jim Miller.

“Delaware Valley has gotten better, Coe has gotten better, Concordia of Minnesota is another team that has jumped up,” Miller said of potential contenders. “It’s a dog fight every year and there are a lot more than one, two or three teams who think they’ve got a legitimate shot.”

The national tournament leaves the borders of Iowa for the first time in five years when the NCAAs head to La Crosse in March and by all means it looks like a war could take place on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Of last year’s 80 All-Americans, 50 of them could be back, including nine of 10 national champions: Clayton Rush of Coe at 125, Bebeto Yewah of La Crosse at 133, Minga Batsukh of St. John’s at 141, Isaac Dukes of Case Western at 149, Luke Miller of Ohio Northern at 157, Vince Renaut of USMMA at 165, Michael Schmitz of La Crosse at 174, Phil Moenkedick of Concordia (Minn) at 184 and Byron Tate of Wartburg at 197.

Yewah will be moving up to 141 according to Eagles’ head coach Dave Malecek, while Batsukh is expected to jump to 149. That jump could give 149 three former national champions if you include La Crosse’s Matt Mauseth who won in 2009.

Additionally, Augsburg’s Jared Massey, the 197-pound 2009 national champ is back.

With three national champs and an All-American back, Malecek, with the tournament in his back yard, has to be feeling strong.

“Do we like who we have back, yeah,” he said, “But we have some very huge holes to fill with the loss of Dan Laurent (three-time heavyweight champion) and Andy Moore who was a two-time All-American.

“Sure we have three national champs back, but just because you’ve won it once doesn’t mean everybody is going to get out of your way.

“We’re going to have to have some young guys step up. Our focus is to be consistent all year long. We’ve been able to peak at the national tournament the past few years, but we want to be consistent all year … do real well at the National Duals, win the conference tournament again. We want to be consistent from start to finish.”

The Eagles are hosting the tournament for the first time and the championships are being held in Wisconsin for the first time since Stevens Point hosted in 1994, which also happens to be the last time a team other than Augsburg or Wartburg (Ithaca) won the Division III national crown.

“I like that. I like that a lot. I did not know that significance,” Malecek said. “That’s a new twist.

“If that is the case this year, we’ll host it every year,” added a laughing Malecek.

Augsburg, which captured an 11th national title in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last March, returns five All-Americans, all who finished fourth or better — Josh Roberts (fourth at 125), Tony Valek (second at 149), Orlando Ponce (second at 165), Zach Molitor (third at 174) and Jared Massey (third at 197).

“They are hungry, especially the guys at those open weight classes,” Auggie head coach Mark Matzek said. “Those guys have been here a couple of years waiting for this opportunity.

“The five back; that is a great nucleus with great leadership to have back. Right now we’re working toward putting ourselves in position to compete for a National Duals title and a national title.

“That means working hard, training hard and managing your weight. You have to do everything right so you are ready when the time comes to win championships.”

However, the Auggies lost their other five starters, four of whom were national qualifiers and three of whom earned All-American status.

The defending champs open their 2010-11 season Nov. 20 by hosting the Auggie Open with more than 400 competitors.

Wartburg could return eight national qualifiers, but three of those — All-Americans Matt Kelly (141) and Adam Weber (157) and Todd Becker (184) — only have a semester of eligibility left and at best won’t be back until second semester.

Tate is back at 197 which figures to be a loaded field. Heavyweight national runner-up John Helgerson and All-Americans Carrington Banks (7th at 165) and Dylan Azinger (sixth at 174) also return for the Knights.

Senior Mark Kist at 125 was an All-American in 2009.

“We have a lot more experience to start off with than we did last year which makes the coach feel a little more at ease,” Miller said. “But it is going to be a battle in our room, and for a lot of those returners. We have some guys who haven’t been the guy who want to challenge to be the guy. That is a good thing.”

Miller, who enters his 20th season at the helm, also feels good about his own health. He had hip resurfacing surgery last year, and will be able to be more hands on than he has been in the last two or three seasons.

“This is the best I’ve felt in a long time physically,” Miller said.

Rounding out last year’s top six were Coe, Delaware Valley and Ithaca. They all return strong teams.

Coe returns six national qualifiers, including Rush and fellow All-Americans Nick LeClere at 165 (4th) and Seth Rehn at 174 (7th). The Kohawks lost two All-Americans: former national champion Tyler Burkle and heavyweight Mitch Sander.

Delaware Valley, which has switched to the Metro Conference, has All-American Jesse Harrington back at 157 and added Southern Maine All-American Matt Ulrich at 141 in addition to two other national qualifiers.

Ithaca has three retrurning: Seth Ecker (6th in 2009 at 125), national runner-up Jeremy Stierly at 133, and two-time AA Blaine Woszczak at 149.

Finally, the 2011 championships will have 170 qualifiers, up from the 160 in previous seasons. After automatic qualifiers and wildcards are selected, wrestlers will be added to make sure each weight class has at least 16 competitors in its bracket.