You get one chance to make a first impression.
The University of Northern Iowa plans to make sure their new postseason opponents realize what the Panthers bring to the table.
UNI will compete in the Mid-American Conference tournament for the first time Sunday at the University of Buffalo. The MAC tournament is a national qualifier, receiving an original 30 berths to the NCAA Championships on March 21-23 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
“It’s an opportunity for our guys to set a precedent of how we’re going to compete in this conference,” UNI Coach Doug Schwab said. “We can show the type of team we’re going to be bringing there from now to the future.”
There is plenty at stake with postseason success on the line, but the wrestlers have a chance to make a general statement about their program. They recognize and have prepared for the challenge with the entire season leading to this point.
“We don’t want to be just another team, joining the conference,” UNI 141-pounder Joey Lazor said. “We want to go in there and show we deserve to be there.”
The Panthers, University of Missouri and Old Dominion moved to the conference at the start of this season, but Old Dominion will not compete in the conference tournament until next season. UNI previously wrestled in the West Regional meet, which received 18 qualifiers.
UNI has six wrestlers that received top-four pre-seeds at their respective weights, including No. 1 pre-seed Lazor. Ryan Loder (184) and David Bonin (157) are looking to return to the NCAA tournament and are both pre-seeded No. 2. The MAC will provide a similar test to what the Panthers will face in less than two weeks in Des Moines.
“The big thing for us is the tougher competition then the more ready we are for the national tournament,” Schwab said. “There are some highly ranked guys at almost every weight class. Our guys need to be ready and more prepared for the national meet.”
Levi Wolfensperger, a 2012 NCAA qualifier, and Bart Reiter are pre-seeded No. 3 at 133 and 149, respectively. Heavyweight Blaine Beale is pre-seeded fourth.
Lazor might just be the hottest Panther at the moment. He has only lost once since the Midlands Championships in December. The lone setback was a decision to Oklahoma’s Kendric Maple, according to Schwab, who likes where Lazor is at and hopes his approach is contagious to the entire team.
“He’s always competing and scoring a lot of points,” Schwab said. “He really is in control of his position, scoring points in bunches. I feel good with the strong of wins he’s put together. When you put a string together like that you’re expecting to dominate a guy and win.”
Lazor (29-7) does not plan to stray from his winning formula. He will maintain the same approach that he has had the second half of the season. Lazor is not fazed by the fact that only the MAC champion at 141 will automatically advance to the NCAA tournament.
“I’m just going to stayed relaxed and keep going,” Lazor said. “I’m going to stay focused and get ready for each match.”
All the work this season has been geared to Sunday’s results. Schwab is high on the Panthers, but they have to prove themselves.
“I know I’m excited,” Schwab said. “It’s about where these guys are in preparation. It’s time to perform on Sunday.”
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