OKLAHOMA CITY – Steps have been taken in the right direction at the University of Northern Iowa.
Panthers head wrestling coach Doug Schwab prefers moving that way in a full sprint than a leisurely stroll.
UNI has plenty to build on with this season, earning its second straight 15th-place finish Saturday at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships. The Panthers had three All-Americans, which is the first time since 2002 and one more than a year ago.
It came after the Panthers had top-10 hopes when they just missed out on a Mid-American Conference Championships title to Missouri and finishing the regular season as the only Division I team unbeaten in duals. Sitting at the table with the best starts with believing you belong at it.
“We have to start thinking we are a top program and not stepping out there with whatever on their chests and we need to take a backseat to them,” Schwab said. “We have to believe we’re one of the best teams.”
The “Panthertrain” has travelled a long distance from when Schwab took over four seasons ago. He would like to see the journey to becoming national contender speed up. Progress has been made, and Schwab expects more next season.
“It is hard to be patient, because you understand how they want it,” Schwab said. “They want it right now, too. We’ve made steps in the right direction.”
The Panthers advanced seven to the NCAA tournament, which is the most under Schwab. Red-shirt freshman Dylan Peters is the only returning All-American, placing sixth at 125. Peters became the Panthers first freshman All-American since Tony Wieland in 1996 and their highest finishing freshman since current assistant Mark Schwab was fifth as a freshman in 1986.
UNI 165-pounder Cooper Moore, also a red-shirt freshman, was seeded 10th at the national tournament. Cody Caldwell (174) and heavyweight Blaize Cabell competed this week and will give the Panthers a strong nucleus to build around, but they lose seniors Joe Colon (133), Joey Lazor (141) and 184-pounder Ryan Loder. Colon and Lazor were All-Americans this year, while Loder earned that honor in 2013.
UNI needs a total team effort, especially from new faces in the lineup. Every Panther has to be fully committed to work during the offseason to avoid being a “one-hit wonder” of teams that crack the elite group.
“To get to another level and make that jump, there are things that have to happen,” Schwab said. “The commitment has to be there and the focus has to be there. We have to put another great spring, summer and fall together.”
Schwab and the Panthers were disappointed remaining on the outside looking in at the top-10 teams. Even though there was improvement, the Panthers are content with minimal postseason gains after an impressive regular season.“I’m proud of our guys and what we did throughout the season. No doubt,” Schwab said. “I’m not trying to discredit that at all. How you feel right now is not thinking about the regular season … I don’t like how we finished. I don’t think any of our guys liked how we finished.”