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NCWA NEWCOMERS ADD SPICE TO CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS
By Scott Farrell
DALLAS – The National Collegiate Wrestling Association returns to its second home in Florida next month.
The Southeast has always been a target area for the NCWA, and from March 8-10 the association’s epicenter will be at the Ocean Center Arena in the heart of Daytona Beach for the 2012 NCWA National Championships.
Who will be among the 450 wrestlers competing in the three-day event, and which schools they represent will be determined on Saturday as the more than 150 NCWA schools compete in seven conference tournaments across the country that serve as the national qualifying events.
“It’s a big week for us nationwide, leading up to an even bigger week in Daytona in a couple of weeks,” NCWA Executive Director Jim Giunta said.
The North Central Conference Championships are drawing national attention this week as Southern Illinois-Edwardsville hosts a tournament that, based on the schools competing, should establish a frontrunner for the national title. NCWA newcomers Notre Dame College (Ohio), Lindenwood-St. Charles (Mo.) and McKendree (Ill.) add plenty of spice to an already packed conference with SIUE and Grand Valley State. Notre Dame was the two-time NAIA champion before moving to the NCWA. Lindenwood and McKendree were second and third last year.
Add in Minot State (N.D.), another team on its way toward NCAA Division II status, and the eight qualifying spots to nationals will be up for grabs in every weight class.
“We’ve got so many strong teams in our conference, it’s going to be interesting to see who knocks who off along the way,” said Grand Valley State head coach Rick Bolhuis. “Looking at the top-flight schools we have this year, there is no favorite.”
Bolhuis said Grand Valley State, a three-time NCWA champion, may vacate a weight class or two in order to double-up some of its best wrestlers into the weight classes that give them the best competitive advantage. Schools are allowed two entries in each bracket at NCWA conference and national tournaments, with one of them established as a non-scoring entrant.
“Notre Dame came to Michigan and won a bunch of brackets at our Laker Duals early in the season,” Bolhuis said. “We lost to Lindenwood-St. Charles but beat Lindenwood-Belleville. I saw where Lindenwood-St. Charles beat McKendree. Every match is going to be tough, obviously. I’m excited about the opportunity to go up against all of them at once. I hope we can take advantage of it. We’re ready to put our best team out there and see what happens.”
Bolhuis said the NCC will contest matches out to 12th place, hoping to create the opportunity for wild-card qualification to nationals should the NCWA Seeding Committee elect to expand past its 32-man brackets.
“I know this,” he added. “Whoever the national qualifiers are coming out of the North Central this weekend, they will have earned it.”
Liberty University, which is in its first year of NCWA membership after the school reclassified its NCAA Division I program last year, is favored to repeat as the Mid-Atlantic Conference champions. The MAC is stocked with plenty of talent again, but the story line is whether Middle Tennessee State, Maryland-Baltimore County or The Apprentice School has gained ground and might catch Liberty, the tourney host and 2012 NCWA National Duals champion, for the conference title. Liberty has wrestlers ranked in the top 20 in seven of the 11 weight classes.
“Because of their depth and experience, you have to give the edge to Liberty right now,” said Apprentice head coach Bruce Shumaker. “UMBC has had a great season and could push them, and I know the St. Andrew’s (N.C.) team is very strong and should earn some qualifying spots. We have guys who have All-American ambitions, and the key for us will be to gain the best seeding possible for the nationals.
“As for the conference, there’s no question it will be the biggest and toughest it’s ever been.”
There are some intriguing individual battles within the MAC that could set up, or at least preview, upcoming national title matches. At 133, the top-ranked wrestler is Marcus Chevres of Apprentice, who is aiming for a fourth All-American finish. Right behind at No. 2 is Eric Feuerbacher of MTSU. Kekura Musa of UMBC, who lost to Chevres in the third-place match at nationals last year, is ranked eighth.
The MAC is stacked in the heavier weights, especially at 184, where the conference has five of the top nine ranked wrestlers. Eldar Muradov of UBMC is the highest of that quintet at No. 2, followed by Justin Martz (4th) of Apprentice, Michael LaBadie (6th) of MTSU, Royal Brettrager (7th) of Liberty, with two-time All-American Ben Brummel of South Carolina currently ninth. In all, seven of the top 14 ranked wrestlers at 184 are from the MAC.
Out west, defending NCWA national champion California Baptist is a heavy favorite at the West Coast Conference Championships. The Lancers could set up another title run with a double-digit count of national qualifiers. CBU, which was light on NCWA competition during the regular season, has wrestlers ranked in the top 20 in eight of the 11 weight classes.
The Southeast Conference continues to improve its reach on the national scale, beyond the staples of UCF and Marion Military Institute (Ala.). UCF head coach Jason Balma says the talent has always been present within the conference, but better off-the-mat direction is what is pushing the SEC forward.
“The big change we’ve noticed within our conference is the median level has been brought up as a whole,” Balma said. “The talent has always been there, but now our teams are better coached and better organized. It’s translating into more success on the mat.”
Balma expects up to 150 wrestlers to compete this weekend as UCF hosts the SEC tourney, one of the highest counts in 10 years.
UCF has been idle for most of the past month while preparing for the postseason. It faced arguably the toughest schedule of any NCWA team this year, and took some lumps in doing so. But Balma says the rugged regular season schedule will pay off.
“We’ve been beat up by the best of them this year, inside and outside the NCWA,” he said. “Because of that, maybe we’re not seen as a top-10 team now. We usually are going full throttle into the postseason. But this year we stepped back and rested. Now the guys are hungry to compete again, and maybe we can surprise some people since we’re not the favorites anymore.”
The SEC’s growth is evident at Mercer, which heads into the conference tournament with eight ranked wrestlers following a surprising 11th-place finish at last year’s nationals. North Florida is in its second year and already has three ranked wrestlers.
The SEC is the NCWA’s stalwart at 125 pounds, with four of the top six ranked wrestlers inside the conference. Nick Wright of Mercer, Cody Roberts of Marion Military Institute, and two-time All-American Alexander Chiricosta of UCF are 2-3-4 in the current rankings, with UCF’s Brian Santiago sitting at No. 6 but could move to another weight.
Colorado State hopes to parlay its position as host to the Southwest Conference
Championships into another title. The Rams have placed in the SWC’s top-three each year since 2006, with conference titles in 2006, 2007 and 2010. Samuel Snyder leads the way at 197 pounds, and another senior, Aaron Gray, is a leader at 133 for CSU, which has only eight wrestlers in its lineup.
That leaves the door open for Kansas State, Wichita State and defending SWC champion Northwest Missouri State to reclaim the title. Kansas State has won four SWC titles in the past 10 years. Wichita State has a national title contender in Aaron Hynick, who is currently ranked second at 165 and is the SWC’s only wrestler currently ranked in the top 10 in his weight class. NMSU returns All-American Blake Schoeninger at 197 pounds, and Jordan Peter placed second for the Bears last year but is not currently ranked at 165.
“It’s good to have the tournament back in the northern part of the conference,” said CSU coach John Thayer, now in his ninth season coaching the Rams. “Northwest Missouri State, Wichita State, Kansas State, Colorado and the Air Force Prep School have been bringing large groups to the tournaments this season.
“Our success will come from attending a lot of open tournaments competing against solid competition, most of it from other divisions,” Thayer said. “We wrestled up most of the year. That competition should serve us well now that we’re wrestling conference opponents again.”
The U.S. Naval Academy Prep School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are favored at the Northeast Conference Championships, hosted at New Hampshire, while West Chester and Penn State-DuBois will jockey for the title at the Mideast Conference Championships.
Each NCWA conference has a specific number of national qualifying spots, but Giunta has already said plans are being made to expand some or all of the brackets to include additional entries because of the association’s growth in participation this year.
NCWA Conference Championships
(each tournament is Saturday, Feb. 25, at campus sites)
Northeast Conference Championships
Host: New Hampshire
Defending Champion: U.S. Naval Academy Prep School
Of Interest: A wrestler from the U.S. Naval Academy Prep School has won the last two, and three of the last four, national titles at 133 pounds. That puts Dakota Beach (5-7) on the spot as USNAPS’s starter at 133. But he’s ranked 62nd going into the conference tournament. USNAPS has had at least one national champion at the last four NCWA Championships.
Mideast Conference Championships
Host: Valley Forge Military College
Defending Champion: West Chester (Pa.)
Of Interest: West Chester has had two national champions in each of the last two NCWA Championships, and at least one national champ in the last three.
Mid-Atlantic Conference Championships
Defending Champion: The Apprentice School
Of Interest: The Apprentice School has placed in the top 10 at every NCWA Championships since joining in 1999. Liberty, which has beaten Apprentice twice in duals this season, will put the Builders’ streak of 11 consecutive MAC championships in jeopardy.
Southeast Conference Championships
Host: Central Florida
Defending Champion: Central Florida
Of Interest: The Southeast has shown tremendous growth within the NCWA in recent years. Balma said the SEC tournament expects to have up to 150 wrestlers entered this weekend, the most in recent years. There are 11 other programs in Florida competing within the NCWA’s Division II, or “emerging program” division. A school from Florida has won five of the previous 14 NCWA national titles, and at least one SEC team has placed in the top five in every NCWA Championship Tournament.
North Central Conference Championships
Host: Southern Illinois-Edwardsville
Defending Champion: Grand Valley State (Mich.)
Of Interest: In three previous seasons of NCWA membership, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville has not won an outright NCC championship. It placed third in 2009, earned a co-championship with Grand Valley State in 2010, and took second to GVSU last year. The future NCAA Division I program has placed 20th, third and fourth at nationals in the same span.
Also, this marks the postseason debut of the Iowa State club under the NCWA banner. The program is in its first year as an NCWA Division II member, and quickly shot up to 50-plus members. They will compete Saturday against similar D-II programs at Michigan and Ohio State, independent of the schools’ well-established NCAA Division I programs.
Southwest Conference Championships
Host: Colorado State
Defending Champion: Northwest Missouri State
Of Interest: Colorado State hosts its first SWC Championships as the tournament returns to Colorado for the first time since 2007. There’s wrestling history in the host facility, the Glen Morris Field House. Built in 1926, it is one of the oldest continuously-used sports facilities in the nation and hosted the 1949 and 1952 NCAA Championships.
Cole Von Ohlen, now a junior at the U.S. Air Force Academy, won the 2009 NCWA championship at 141 pounds and was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Wrestler competing for the U.S. Air Force Academy Prep School. Von Ohlen is seeded third at 149 heading into the NCAA Division I Championships next month.
West Coast Conference Championships
Host: San Jose State
Defending Champion: California Baptist
Of Interest: The West Coast Conference expansion ballooned this season to 16 teams within its ranks. The NCWA’s largest conference footprint now has six U.S. states represented, along with two Canadian provinces. Douglas College has been a spoiler in the past, but lost its defending champion at 149 when Daniel Swain left school to join MMA Fighting.