CEDAR RAPIDS – A goal four years in the making is two days away from becoming reality.
When the seniors of this year’s Wartburg wrestling team were freshmen, they vowed to win four national titles when their college careers were complete.
With three gold trophies stuffed in the trophy case, the top-ranked Knights are favorites to finish their championship quest when they take the mat for the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships today at the U.S. Cellular Center. The first round begins at 11 a.m.
Making Wartburg the first NCAA Division III program to win four straight titles, and tying Augsburg with a division –high 11 overall titles was the goal from the first day on campus.
“We promised each other,” Wartburg senior 157-pounder and former West Delaware prep Brett Yonkovic said. “So far, it has all worked out for us. It would be pretty special t get that fourth title.”
Wartburg Coach Eric Keller has not had to mention anything about the feat. He said the Knights have been hungry for this since they got the taste for it as freshmen.
“They know what is at stake,” Keller said. “They know exactly what is on the line.”
The Knights have a tournament-best nine qualifiers, which is one more than Augsburg and two more than Concordia-Moorhead. Wartburg has eight wrestlers projected to be All-Americans, according to seeds.
Keller refused to say the tournament was Wartburg’s to lose. The Knights still have to earn it, overcoming the challenges each round.
“Every national title has to be fought for tooth and nail,” said Keller, who assumed all head coaching duties with the retirement of Hall of Fame head coach Jim Miller. “Nothing is going to be given to us, especially at the national tournament.
“I’ve been telling these guys it is going to take everything they have every match.”
The Knights have risen to the occasion in the past, winning four straight National Wrestling Coaches Association National Duals titles as well. They have five wrestlers seeded in the top two of their weight classes, including top-seeded national champions Kenny Anderson (133) and 174-pounder Landon Williams.
Gilberto Camacho (125), Cole Welter (165) and heavyweight Ryan Fank are seeded second. Puna Soriano (197) is fifth, Connor Campo (141) is seventh and Yonkovic is eighth. There is no pressure to finish the sweep.
“This is a group that the bigger the stage the more they thrive,” Keller said. “It brings the level of excitement up. This is what they’ve been chasing. This is what is coming to fruition and they want to do everything in their power to make sure nothing ends it.”
The key is for each wrestler to achieve as much as possible personally, and, in turn, the team accomplishment will be fulfilled.“All of us have individual goals that we want to get to first,” Yonkovic said. “If we do that the team results will come.”