Brothers Doug (left) and Mark Schwab have their Northern Iowa Panthers ranked No. 6 in the nation.
Doug Schwab knew his team was on the brink of a breakthrough.
During a break between sessions at the 2013 NCAA Championships, Schwab talked about how important it would be for his Northern Iowa program to gain spots on the All-American podium.
Two days later, two of his wrestlers earned All-American honors for a Panther team that finished 15th nationally in Schwab’s third season as UNI’s head coach.
“That was huge for our guys to let them know that we are doing the right things,” Schwab said. “To finally see the results and see them break through was very important. To see it pay off, it helps other guys on the team and lets them know they can do the same thing. It brought us to another level and carried over into our work in the spring and summer.”
That momentum and progression has continued into the early stages of this season. The Panthers have jumped to No. 6 in the national team rankings heading into this weekend’s Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas.
UNI turned in a strong performance in notching a 29-9 win over No. 24 Wisconsin on Saturday before a packed house of 2,000 fans at UNI’s West Gym in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The Panthers improved to 3-0 in duals.
“It definitely was a good win for us,” Schwab said. “It’s still December, and we’re obviously working for March, but it was good to win a dual like that in front of a capacity crowd. It was exciting and great for our program. Our guys competed hard and the fans were great.”
The 36-year-old Schwab has injected his unique brand of fire and enthusiasm in rebuilding a program that has a long and storied history in the collegiate ranks.
Senior Ryan Loder, ranked third nationally at 184 pounds, leads a strong group of veterans on the Panther squad. Loder placed seventh at the 2013 NCAAs.
“Just confidence-wise, it helps that Ryan was an All-American last year,” Schwab said. “He needs to continue to build on that. He had surgery and he is still coming back from that. He’s not where he needs to be yet, but he’s obviously a proven guy for us.”
Senior Joe Colon opened some eyes Saturday by knocking off three-time All-American Tyler Graff of Wisconsin 6-0 at 133. Graff placed third at the 2013 NCAAs and was ranked No. 2 before the loss to Colon.
Colon reached the round of 12 at the 2012 NCAAs, but was dismissed from the team last season before working his way back onto the squad this year. Colon is ranked No. 4 nationally.
“That was a huge win confidence-wise for Joe,” Schwab said. “He has a lot of redemption in front of him this year and that was a small piece of that. It was a good early season challenge for Joe and he met the challenge.
“Joe deserves a lot of credit for working his way back into the program. He’s a better student and he’s doing well for us. He’s responded well and he’s grown from it.”
Senior Joey Lazor also has started strong at 141 pounds. He is ranked No. 8 after earning a 14-2 major decision over No. 18 Jesse Thielke of Wisconsin. Thielke was a 2013 U.S. World Team member in Greco-Roman wrestling.
Lazor reached the round of 12 at the 2013 NCAAs.
“Joey’s a tough kid – he’s very confident in his wrestling and it shows,” Schwab said. “He is very dangerous on top and just puts the hammer on guys. He can score points in bunches and he can blow matches wide-open in a hurry. That’s great to see because we want guys who can score bonus points.”
UNI freshman Dylan Peters has emerged as a bonus-point machine at 125. Peters has pinned all six opponents this season. His longest match lasted 3 minutes, 17 seconds. Peters is ranked No. 8 nationally.
“Dylan’s a guy we really targeted in recruiting,” Schwab said. “I love how he trains and how he lives. He’s as competitive as you can get and he’s responded for us. He provides a lot of energy to lead off our lineup at 125.”
Schwab arrived at UNI with strong credentials, serving as an assistant coach for three NCAA championship teams at Iowa.
Schwab had an outstanding career as a wrestler. He won an NCAA title for Iowa before excelling internationally for the United States in freestyle wrestling. He placed fifth at the 2007 World Championships and competed for the U.S. at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
Schwab’s staff includes his older brother, Mark Schwab, along with Randy Pugh and Tolly Thompson. Mark Schwab and Pugh were All-Americans for UNI. Thompson was an NCAA champion for Nebraska before winning a World bronze medal in freestyle wrestling as a heavyweight.
The Panther staff has a strong local and area connection to Cedar Falls and the University of Northern Iowa. The Schwabs grew up in nearby Osage, Iowa, Pugh is also from eastern Iowa and Thompson is from nearby Janesville, Iowa.
“This is our fourth year together as a coaching staff,” Doug Schwab said. “Having continuity on our staff is important. We work well together. We care about and love our athletes and get along well with them. All our coaches have the same vision. We want to do something great with this program.”
The staff features an interesting dynamic with Doug Schwab having his older brother as an assistant. Mark Schwab also excelled wrestling internationally for the U.S. during his competitive career.
“It’s worked out great with Mark being on my staff,” Doug said. “Mark’s a great coach and he has a lot of experience. I know he’s not going to be a yes man – he sees things differently than me sometimes and that’s a good thing because we bounce a lot of ideas off each other. I do really trust and believe in what he says. He is in a position he loves to be in and he’s very passionate about this program.”
The Panthers will compete in the Cliff Keen event for the second straight year.
“It’s a really good tournament,” Schwab said. “We will see a lot of tough teams and a lot of teams we normally wouldn’t see during the year. It will be a real good test for us in a big-time environment.”
Schwab is keeping his team’s early success this season in proper perspective.
“It’s very good for the program to get that recognition,” Schwab said. “It reaffirms what we’re doing and we want to open eyes and put our program on the map. We also want to keep advancing and keep closing the gap on the top teams.
“We need to keep earning it. We don’t want to be a flash in the pan. We don’t think we’ve arrived yet and our guys understand that. We want to be the best.”