CEDAR FALLS – The University of Northern Iowa wrestling program broke down a wall to expand its renovated practice room during the offseason.
This season, head coach Doug Schwab wants the Panthers breaking down barriers preventing them from expanded national prominence.
UNI has shown improvement in his first two seasons as head coach, but at the team’s media day Thursday at the McLeod Center Schwab emphasized the Panthers need to make an impact nationally. UNI returns five national qualifiers from a team that placed 35th at the 2012 NCAA tournament and posted an 8-7 dual record.
“Break through as a team, break through individually,” Schwab said. “We have to make some gains. We made some progress as a team, but we haven’t had the break through at the national tournament.”
The Panthers haven’t had an All-American since former Cedar Rapids Kennedy prep Jarion Beets placed eighth at 174 pounds in 2010, and haven’t had more than one since 2005. Despite the improvements, Schwab said success is measured by the accomplishments at the end of the season and the Panthers haven’t fared well on the biggest stage.
“We had some breakthroughs and big wins during the year, but we’ve got to put it together throughout the whole season,” Schwab said. “Continue to do it and keep building, and get guys where they are on top of that (medal) stand.”
At this level, work ethic and dedication separates the elite from the rest. The Panthers have taken steps to plow down the obstacles preventing them from major achievements at the end of the year.
“Since the national tournament got over last year, the thing that we can build off of is we’ve had guys in there daily, working at getting better doing the things we know that need to be done,” Schwab said. “The gains are starting to happen but they’re not happening because they started showing up in August.”
Confidence is a key factor for a young team that has 23 wrestlers in their first or second year in college. All it takes is one Panther to thrive for the rest to believe in their ability.
“That always helps to have someone else in your room that you’re beside every day to do it,” Schwab said. “It’s not just the coach telling them. You’ve got someone they train with everyday that’s a peer to do it.
“Really, that’s all we’re missing.”
Some of the Panthers were close to that final breakthrough last year. Joe Colon and Ryan Loder were one win shy of all-America status last season at 133 and 184 pounds, respectively. David Bonin (157) made his third NCAA tournament appearance, while sophomore Levi Wolfensperger (141) and heavyweight Blayne Beale return with national tournament experience.
They provide a good nucleus for the Panthers.
“We have some good older leaders,” Schwab said.
Colon, who is expected to drop to 125 in late December, was an NJCAA Champion for Iowa Central in 2010 before transferring to UNI. He went 24-7, but is fueled by not bringing home any hardware in March.
“I still think about it, but I’m not down about it,” Colon said. “I use it as more motivation.”
Loder, a junior, has reached the round of 12 at the NCAA tournament the last two years. He is 65-17 in two seasons, going 35-6 last year. The wins aren’t as memorable as the failure to reach the podium.
“You’ve got to do more,” Loder said about becoming an All-American. “I thought I did everything I could. I wasn’t mad about what happened. There were no corners I cut and I still didn’t get what I wanted.”
David Bonin (157) is a three-time NCAA qualifier looking for his first top-eight NCAA finish. Bonin has been one of Schwab’s hardest workers since he took over the Panthers. He has beaten some of the top wrestlers at his weight.
“Bonin has done a great job since Day 1,” Schwab said. “We have to be able to put that together at the national tournament and beat these guys.”
Not even the national qualifiers are assured to regain their spots, according to Schwab and Loder. A group of young and hungry Panthers are contending for starting spots. They also have helped provide depth with multiple wrestlers at each weight.
It is what Schwab envisioned when he took over after serving as an assistant to University of Iowa Coach Tom Brands. He relied on finding devoted wrestlers with a strong work ethic.
“In recruiting, we targeted certain kinds of kids,” said Schwab, noting that creating depth was a priority from the start. “They were going to work their tails off and if they’re behind somebody right now or behind somebody in the country they’re going to find their way to overcome that. That’s what I see happening, right now.”
The Panthers have created an air of excitement. Fans are starting to take notice. A workout during UNI Homecoming weekend attracted more than 200 spectators in the West Gym. Booster club meetings have 50 to 60 attendees.
“People are eager and excited about UNI wrestling, but we have to keep them that way,” Schwab said. “Keep them captivated and I know our guys
Red-shirt freshmen Cody Caldwell (174), heavyweight Cody Krumwiede, Jarrett Jensen (157/165), Blaize Cabell (197) and upperweight A.J. McBroom could contribute this season. Caldwell has been ranked in some polls already.
They are buying in to Schwab’s mantra that you don’t have to wait to win and make an immediate impact.
“We’re coming in and putting the work in,” Caldwell said. “Coach keeps reminding us the rewards are going to come. We believe that and we’re really excited to start competing so we can show our fans and the rest of this country what UNI wrestling is all about.”
Schwab said the Panthers have a lot of work ahead of them. UNI will face test to earn any accomplishments this season. They look forward to the challenge.
“I’ve told our team all year we’re going to shock the country,” Schwab said. “They plan on doing that.”