Tyler Patten stepped on the University of Northern Iowa campus, thinking his days as a competitive wrestler were behind him.
Now, the Panthers red-shirt freshman is looking ahead to this weekend’s opportunity.
Patten passed on wrestling and UNI Coach Doug Schwab at first when he arrived at the school. The wrestling blood in his veins pulsed when Patten attended a Panther dual as a spectator, leading him to reconsider his decision and join the program.
Two years later, Patten will represent UNI and contend for an NCAA Championships berth at 149 pounds at the Mid-American Conference Championships this weekend at Kent, Ohio. The tournament hosted by Kent State begins Saturday at 11 a.m.
“After my senior year in high school, I was kind of losing my passion for the sport,” Patten said. “I got to college and started going to all the meets and watching those guys. I missed it.”
He was not training full-time that first year, but he was still slightly involved in the sport. He won an intramural championship at UNI. The feat is the source of good-natured ribbing from teammates, mentioning that title as the reason he thought he could contribute to the Panthers’ success.
“We give him a little crap,” Schwab said with a laugh. “He won an intramural title and now he’s a guy on the team. It’s actually pretty cool.”
Patten was a target recruit. He was a four-time state medalist, reaching the Class 2A state finals as a junior and senior at Webster City. Schwab said he understood Patten’s original position, because wrestling at the NCAA Division I level demands complete concentration and devotion. Patten said Schwab was surprised when he entered his office after the 2011-12 season.
“I randomly walked in one day and blindsided him,” Patten said. “I think he was happy with just getting another guy in the room to help out and work with those starters.
“We spent a lot of time working with me individually to catch back up.”
Before returning, Patten had started training again. He mainly ran to build his conditioning and then lifted weights, spending much of his 2012 summer in the UNI wrestling room. He posted a 19-7 mark in his red-shirt season last year, and opened the season near the bottom of the 149-pound depth chart.
“I didn’t know where I was going to be competitively in college,” said Patten, who credited teammates Cody Caldwell and Adam Perrin as major influences. “I’m still trying to feel it out, but halfway through the season I finally got that (starting) spot. I’ve been happy with how I’ve been doing.
“It’s just a blast wrestling for this team and competing with the top guys in the nation.”
The rust was shed, but he keeps improving. A year away from the sport is a tough adjustment, but Schwab said Patten’s unorthodox style benefits him against opponents.
“He’s making the most of this opportunity,” Schwab said. “He’s continually getting better. It’s fun to see him progress.”
Patten is 19-14 and is seeded sixth in the MAC Championships. The top four at the weight will advance to the NCAA Division I Championships held March 20-22 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Okla. Schwab said Patten has had some losses to those ahead of him, but they were closer than the score indicated. Patten is focused on reversing them.
“I think I’ve put myself in a great spot to be competitive for one of those national tournament spots,” Patten said. “I’m going to come out and (give my all). I think I’ll have some matches I can come back and win that I lost before.”
The MAC has 41 automatic berths to the NCAA Championships. The Panthers’ Dylan Peters (125), Joe Colon (133), 165-pounder Cooper Moore and All-American Ryan Loder at 184 are all top seeds. National qualifier Joey Lazor (141) is third at 141, while Cody Caldwell (174) and heavyweight Blaize Cabell are seeded fourth.
“This month is what we worked for all season,” said Schwab, whose fifth-ranked dual team was the only Division I team to finish the season undefeated in duals. “We have a lot of momentum on our side. The guys should feel good and proud of what we’ve done, but they also want more.“That is a good spot and where we want to be.”