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Mike Denney has been coaching for 32 years and has seen his Nebraska-Omaha wrestling program win the NCAA Division II national championship six times, including the past three.
But even Denney admits he get surprised by his wrestlers … or perhaps his recruiting assessment of this wrestlers.
“George Ivanov wrestled at 119 pounds when he was in high school. I thought was going to be a 125-pounder,” said Denney.
Ivanov, originally a native of Bulgaria and now a sophomore from nearby Council Bluffs, Iowa, is currently ranked No. 1 nationally at 157 pounds, where he finished second in last year’s national tournament.
“George is a level above where he was last year when I talked him into moving up to 157,” Denney said of Ivanov, whose shoe size grew from a six to a nine in three years. “Now he’s a full-fledged 157 pounder.”
And the 2010-11 Mavericks, who out-paced last year’s national runner-up, Augustana, by nearly 50 points (131-72), are considered a prohibitive favorite to win a fourth straight NCAA title next March in Kearney, Neb.
That’s because Ivanov is one of eight Mavericks who are ranked in the Division II preseason poll and only one — defending national champion Elijah Madison at heavyweight — tasted an individual championship while the Mavericks coasted to a team title with five finalists, the most in UNO history.
“When we looked at our overall performance last year, we were pretty well pleased,” Denney said. “(Except capturing only one title), it was kind of nice having it wrapped up before the finals.”
But in addition to Madison, a sophomore, and Ivanov, UNO returns two more finalists from last year: Esai Dominguez, a junior from Omaha, who is top-ranked at 149, where he finished second last year and 141-pound Mario Morgan, a senior from Chicago, who is ranked No. 2 behind Augustana’s Jay Sherer, who edged the Maverick, 3-1, in last year’s final
“Jay Sherer wrestled a heck of a match against Mario,” said Denney. “Their coaches did a great job of scouting us and shut Mario down.”
“Jay had never beaten Mario Morgan and Jay executed every part of it,” said Augustana coach Jason Reitmeier, who said Sherer, a senior from Columbus, Neb., looks more like a checkers player than a wrestler. “He’s a bright kid, who is exceptional in the class room and brings that to his wrestling.”
Sherer is one of four returning national champions returning. The others are Bryant Blanton of Newberry (S.C.) at 184 pounds, Donovan McMahill of Western State (Colo.) at 197 pounds and UNO’s Madison, who was just a freshman last March when he edged Minnesota State’s Brady Wilson, 1-0, in their final.
Denney said Madison, a native of Kansas City, Mo., is a lot different wrestler than UNO’s other most recent heavyweight champion Les Sigman, the 2010 U.S. World Team member who won four titles for UNO (2003-06).
“Elijah’s a different kind of wrestler,” Denney said. “He’s short and compact, explosive and really quick. He’s hard to do anything against because he is compact and in good position.”
So what other teams are in good position to challenge the Mavericks for the 2011 team title?
The preseason poll suggests that St. Cloud (Minn.) State has the best chance, even though the Huskies finished seventh in last year’s national tournament, while Augustana is picked to finish No. 3.
“The part that concerns me is that we didn’t finish that high and others did,” said Husky coach Steve Costanzo, who is in his fifth year at St. Cloud. “That doesn’t make sense to me. The Augustana wrestlers were runner-ups and return all their All-Americans. How can we be ahead of them in the poll?
Individually, St. Cloud has six wrestlers ranked but only three earned All-American honors last March: No. 4 Gabe Suarez (who finished eighth at 141), No. 4 Tad Merritt (5th at 165) and No. 4 Shamus O’Grady (6th at 174).
“I kind of have mixed feeling that I don’t know how good we are,” Costanzo said. “It’s nice to see the respect voters have for our team. We still have a lot to prove.”
Of those ranked wrestlers, O’Grady has shown his coach how important wrestling is to him. Also a member of St. Cloud’s cross country team, the sophomore from Coon Rapids, Minn., is redshirting that sport this fall to focus on wrestling.
“He loves running,” Costanzo said. “He’s the type of guy who will run 20 plus miles a week. We have to monitor that.
“He is a little bit bigger than a cross country runner. (As a wrestler), he’s excellent in the top position and is hard to score on. He has great hips. If we can monitor his running with his wrestling, he’ll be a great wrestler.”
Augustana, located in Sioux Falls, S.D., has six wrestlers ranked in the preseason and five placed last year: Sherer, No. 3 Nate Herda (4th at 149), No. 2 Marcus Edgington (4th at 157), No. 6 Gavin Nelson (8th at 165) and No. 2 Ty Copsey (2nd at 197).
“A lot of people didn’t think he has talent but he just wins and has a chance to be a three-time All-American,” said Reitmeier of Copsey, a senior from Glenwood, Iowa, who also finished seventh in 2009.
Reitmeier, who is in his eighth year at Augustana, said Copsey is like many of his wrestlers.
“We’re not a flashy team, but we battle every match,” said Reitmeier, whose team actually failed to win its conference but came back to win the regionals.
In the past, Division II has featured the fewest number of teams. But that number is expected to move past 50 as several NAIA programs like Notre Dame College and California Baptist prepare to move to NCAA Division II.
“This is my 32nd year of coaching in Division II and this is the healthiest I’ve ever seen it,” said Denney. “I think we have to be the fastest-growing Division II sport in the NCAA. I love it.
“Some schools are adding wrestling because they are making money for the school. You don’t have to add that much and you can offer a few scholarships and all of a sudden you have 40 people you didn’t have before. I think in Division II we give our fans a good bang for their buck.” n