The University of Northern Iowa has cracked the nation’s current top-five wrestling teams, but save the pats on the back.
Panther Coach Doug Schwab isn’t sure if his program has ever ascended that high at the NCAA Division I level. He won’t celebrate it until they can claim the same in March.
“Let’s finish in the top five,” Schwab said. “Then, we will talk more.”
UNI turned heads with a 19-17 win over previously No. 4-ranked Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., on Sunday. The fifth-ranked Panthers have a chance to prove their increased stock, hosting Mid-American Conference rival No. 7 Missouri Friday at the West Gym in Cedar Falls, beginning at 7 p.m.
The Panthers are 6-0, making Schwab happy with their progress.
“We have pretty good results, right now,” Schwab said. “I might be biased but I think they are pretty fun to watch. They’re trying to score points and they’re attacking. Some aren’t as conventional as others but they’re making it exciting for fans.”
Panther fans have transitioned from feeling the sting of performances before the Schwab area to a buzz that is surrounding the program and filling the West Gym.
“Obviously, that’s what we want,” Schwab said. “We want people to be excited about what we’re doing and, more than anything, they want to come watch us compete because of how our guys wrestle. That’s something we’ve been trying to do since I’ve got here.”
The turnaround has come relatively quickly. The Panthers didn’t even crack the top-40 at the 2010 NCAA tournament and in 2011, which was Schwab’s first season as UNI head coach. Last year, UNI climbed to 15th and made another big jump in just his fourth season.
The Panthers might be ahead of schedule for some. When did Schwab expect success?
“About the second day I was there,” Schwab said with a laugh. “You have a standard of how you want guys to train and live. You don’t make a guarantee for them but you give them the best possible chance for this to happen.”
The Panthers have had been a prototypical team. They have competitive wrestlers at each weight and no longer give away points. Joe Colon is top-ranked at 133 and 184-pound All-American Ryan Loder is getting healthy. Red-shirt freshmen Dylan Peters (125) and 165-pounder Cooper Moore have made big contributions. Joey Lazor, a national qualifier last year, has made an impact at 141. Don’t forget Blaize Cabell, who has moved to heavyweight and filled in well.
“It’s exciting where our guys are at, how they feel and how they feel about each other,” Schwab said. “They’ve really gelled as a team. If one guy is down, another is picking him up.”
Loder and Peters are also ranked in the top 10 of their respective weights. Lazor and Moore are listed I the top 20 and sit just outside the top-10 rankings. They take pride in helping UNI to an unbeaten dual team, which is aided by the fact Colon, Loder, Lazor and Peters are undefeated in dual competition.
“These guys compete hard,” Schwab said. “They set a good tone for our team.
“We want to keep them undefeated. That’s a lot of points for our team in duals.”
UNI came away with a defining victory, beating Oklahoma for a second straight time. The Panthers won five matches, posting two bonus-point victories. Others may have been surprised, but the Panthers are starting to believe those are duals they are supposed to win. They enjoyed the accomplishment, but immediately set their sights on the Tigers (4-0).
“You get focused back in a hurry with Missouri,” Schwab said. “We have bigger and better things ahead. I told them to get used to winning in Oklahoma. The national tournament is down there and that’s really what we’re after.”
So, save all the congratulatory messages and praise for a turnaround until the work is completed in March. Even then, Schwab said work remains for them to be a top-five team annually. He said that is his goal and the job he was hired to achieve.“We want to continue to build on it,” Schwab said. “We want them to talk about UNI all the time and for years to come.”