2014 NAIA Wrestling National Championships PreviewKANSAS CITY, Mo. – The 57th annual NAIA Wrestling National Championships open action Friday, March 7 at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka, Kan. The two-day, four-session event brings 210 qualifiers from across the United States to the Sunflower state. Championship bouts are scheduled to start at 7 p.m. CST on Saturday, March 8. Official brackets for the 10 weight classes will be announced Thursday, March 6 by 9 p.m. CST.
Two-time defending national champion Grand View (Iowa) enters the championships vying for its third-straight team title. The Vikings cruised to their fourth-straight Central Qualifying Group Tournament team title, as all 12 grapplers automatically qualified for the national championships with top-four finishes. Overall, Grand View totaled 217 points – 67 more than second place Missouri Valley.
Grand View, which with a victory would become the fourth team to win three-straight national titles and first since Lindenwood (Mo.) (2007, 2008, 2009), ended the dual season with a 17-1 record and an average margin of victory of 23.7 points per dual. The Vikings only loss of the season came against NCAA Division I Iowa State, 22-18, on Nov. 7.
Individually, the Vikings are led by four defending national champions – Gustavo Martinez (141), Chad Lowman (165), Jimmie Schuessler (174) and Eric Thompson (285). The quartet boasts a 100-17 overall record this year, including a 58-1 mark against NAIA opponents. Martinez suffered the only NAIA loss among the group, falling to teammate Brandon Wright, 7-0, at the Central Group Qualifier. Thompson, whose first-period fall in last year’s 285-pound championship match against Brandon Gebhardt of Baker (Kan.) sealed Grand View’s second-consecutive national crown, leads the team and ranks third nationally with 16 pins. If Thompson wins his third 285-pound title, he would become the first heavyweight to three-peat since Jeff Thue of Simon Fraser (B.C.) accomplished the feat in 1991, 1992 and 1993.
In addition to Martinez, Lowman, Schuessler and Thompson, defending national champions Jameel Bryant (184) of Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) and Brock Gutches (174) of Southern Oregon will be in action. Gutches is the two-time defending national champion at 174 pounds and with another title would be the only individual in NAIA history to win three-straight 174-pound championships.
Nineteen programs have previously taken home the team title. Former NAIA member Adams State (Colo.) and Central State (Okla.) took home eight, the most in the event’s 57-year history. Of the current NAIA institutions, Montana State-Northern leads the way with six national championships, with its last coming in 2004.
Individually, 110 programs have had an individual finish atop the podium. Simon Fraser’s 40 individual winners ranks first, while Southern Oregon is second with 32.
Automatic individual qualification for the 2014 NAIA Wrestling National Championships was achieved by a top-four finish at one of the Qualifying Group Tournaments. At-large selections were determined by the total number of participants entered into all qualifying groups. A percentage of the total participants per qualifying group was established by dividing the number of entries per grouping by the overall total to ensure that the 50 at-large places were allocated appropriately across the four groups. At the conclusion of the national qualifiers, there was a selection committee meeting to determine the at-large bids for each group.
NeuLion, the NAIA’s official video streaming company of 17 select NAIA National Championship events, will be broadcasting the title bouts (Session IV) of the 2014 NAIA Wrestling National Championships on March 8. Packages can be purchased for $9.95. For more information and to pre-register, click here.
Weight Class Breakdown
With the graduation of four-time All-American and three-time national champion Mitchell Lofstedt of Southern Oregon, a new national champion is guaranteed at this year’s event. Ryak Finch of Grand View enters the national championships as arguably the favorite. The Central Group champion is 24-0 on the season, including a 10-0 mark against NAIA opponents. Finch, who will be making his first-ever appearance at the national championships, has had only two matches decided by eight points-or-less this season – Nov. 23 against Tyler Endres of NCAA Division II Coe (Iowa), 5-3, and Feb. 22 against teammate Andrew Clark, 4-0.
Other notable 125 pounders: Chris Padilla, Missouri Baptist; Josh Heinzer, Midland (Neb.) and Jake Stigall, Southern Oregon
A quartet of grapplers in Michael Ruiz of Great Falls (Mont.), A.J. Valles of Simpson (Calif.), Justin Brooks of Indiana Tech and Brandon Benvenuti of Grand View – none of which competed at last year’s championships – headline the 133-pound weight class. Ruiz owns the most victories among the group with 33, including a 2-0 overtime decision against then-top ranked Valles at the West Group Qualifying Tournament. Prior to that loss, Valles had won seven of his last eight bouts, with his only loss coming against Jack Hathaway of NCAA Division I Oregon State.
Brooks and Benvenuti were dominant at their respective group qualifier, pinning three of their four opponents en route to the individual crown.
Other notable 133 pounders: Bryce Shoemaker, Baker (Kan.); Robert Rivera, Concordia (Neb.) and Keaton Thomas, Lindsey Wilson (Ky.)
Despite losing in the finals of the Central Group Qualifying Tournament to teammate Brandon Wright, two-time All-American and defending national champion Gustavo Martinez comes to the 2014 national championships as one of the favorites at 141 pounds. Prior to the Group Qualifier, Martinez had ranked atop the 141-pound weight class in every Coaches’ Poll. The junior is 22-5 this year and 13-1 against NAIA opponents.
Montana State-Northern’s Cameron Neiss, who was the national runner-up at 133 pounds last year, is another notable wrestler in the group. The two-time All-American (both at 133 pounds) claimed a 4-2 decision in the title bout at the West Group Qualifier to win a second-straight individual title.
Other notable 141 pounders: Wismit Moinius, Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) and Brandon Wright, Grand View (Iowa)
Colby Crank of Bethany (Kan.) and Jake Ekster of Missouri Valley highlight a talented group of 149-pound wrestlers at this year’s championships. Crank – a 2013 All-American after finishing sixth at 157 pounds – won the head-to-head matchup between the two with a 3-2 victory at the Central Group Qualifier. Ekster, who prior to the qualifier had spent four-straight polls as the NAIA’s No.1-ranked 149 pounder, finished third at the 2013 championships. He was dominant at the Central Tournament, recording a pair of pins and a major decision before losing to Crank.
Other notable 149 pounders: Jake Williams, Cumberland (Tenn.); Tyler Lashbrook, Morningside (Iowa) and Kyle Terry, Campbellsville (Ky.)
Lindsey Wilson’s (Ky.) Joe Cozart claimed his first East Qualifier individual title with a 7-2 win over Shawn McGhee of Campbellsville. Cozart is the defending national runner-up at 157 pounds and has been ranked atop the weight class the entire season. The junior owns a 20-2 overall record and a 13-0 mark against NAIA opponents. Cozart has not lost in 2014, with his most recent defeat coming against Zach Vargo of NCAA Division II Lake Erie (Ohio) on Dec. 14, 2013.
Other notable 157 pounders: Quinten Haynes, Grand View (Iowa); Zach Skates, Oklahoma City and Edward Cheff, Montana State-Northern
Ethan Hinebauch of Montana State-Northern, Chad Lowman of Grand View and Eric Lopez of Menlo (Calif.) are the headliners among the 165-pound wrestlers at this year’s championships. Both Hinebauch and Lowman are two-time All-Americans and have won two-straight group titles in their respective weight class. Lowman, who won the 157-pound national title a season ago, is in his first year wrestling at 165 pounds.
Lopez emerged on the national scene last year with a runner-up finish at the national championships.
Other notable 165 pounders: Kafuba Donzon, Indiana Tech; Trever Devestern, Dakota Wesleyan (S.D.) and James Bennett, Indiana Tech.
The 174-pound weight class boasts two defending national champions in Brock Gutches of Southern Oregon and Jimmie Schuessler of Grand View. With his win last year, Gutches became the first individual to win back-to-back 174-pound titles since Matt Cauley of Lindenwood (Mo.) accomplished the feat in 2008 and 2009. Gutches is 31-3 on the year and 12-0 against NAIA wrestlers. He pinned then-No. 3 Brady Beamon of Simpson (Calif.) in 2:13 to win a second-straight West Group title.
Schuessler, who is also a two-time All-American, won the 165-pound championship in 2013. He boasts a 26-4 overall record with all four losses coming against NCAA Division I opponents.
Other notable 174 pounders: Brady Beamon, Simpson (Calif.); Eziekiel Hunt, Cumberland (Tenn.) and Derek Sivertsen, Oklahoma City
Last year’s national champion Jameel Bryant hopes to become the first 184 pounder to repeat since Jeremy Engelhardt of Mary (N.D.) won three-straight (1999, 2000, 2001). Bryant, who finished third in the event in 2013, won the East Qualifier with a 5-3 decision over second-ranked Cody Linton of Cumberland (Tenn.). He has won 14-straight en route to a 25-4 record.
Other notable 184 pounders: Cody Linton, Cumberland; Joseph Sievert, Morningside and Christian Mays, Grand View
Numerous individuals have the potential to claim the 197-pound title this season, highlighted by Montana State-Northern’s Toby Cheff, Southern Oregon’s Charles Johnson and Missouri Valley’s Josh Manu. Cheff and Manu won their respective qualifying group events, while Johnson took second to Cheff at the West Group. Johnson and Manu received All-America honors after finishing fifth and sixth, respectively, at the 2013 national championships.
In addition Cheff, Johnson and Manu, Carl Lawrence of Missouri Valley and Jesse Hellinger of Dickinson State (N.D.) were national runners-up at last year's championships. Lawrence took second at 197 pounds, while Hellinger was second at 184 pounds.
Other notable 197 pounders: Sam Johnson, Cumberlands (Ky.) and Stephen Loosbrock, Benedictine (Kan.)
Two-time national champion Eric Thompson of Grand View enters this year’s national championships as the favorite. With his victory last season, Thompson became only the second heavyweight to win back-to-back titles in the 285-pound era. He owns 16 pins in 29 victories this season, including falls against NCAA Division I opponents Ben Perna of Iowa State and Jared Torrence of Northern Illinois. Thompson is 16-0 against NAIA opponents this season.
Other notable 285 pounders: Daniel Mueller, Missouri Valley; Courtney Freeman, Cumberlands (Ky.); Saia Lotulelei, York (Neb.) and Scott Brasil, Menlo (Calif.)