By Matt Levins
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Four years ago, this year’s group of seniors on the Wartburg College wrestling team painted a picture of what they hoped would be their future with the Knights — a dynasty.
That picture is now clear as a bell. The Wartburg College wrestling program can be labeled a dynasty.
The Knights won their fourth straight NCAA Division III national championship on Saturday at the U.S. Cellular Center, and they did it in dominating fashion.
Wartburg locked up the team title in the consolation semifinals, then put the icing on the cake in the finals, crowning three national champions.
Wartburg piled up 103 1/2 points, easily outdistancing runner-up Wisconsin-Whitewater, which finished with 67 points.
Four years ago, the Wartburg seniors drew pictures of the dynasty they wanted to create. On Saturday, the dynasty became reality.
“As freshmen, when they came in, they painted all these pictures about this whole dynasty thing. These guys dreamt this their freshman year. Now, as seniors, it’s a powerful, amazing thing. It’s pretty cool,” first-year Wartburg head coach Eric Keller said. “It’s real special. Any time you make history, there’s a reason why it’s history because it’s real hard to do. It says so much about this senior group. If you really take what this senior group has been through.
Like last year, we had to win. We had to win, man, because Miller was going out. It didn’t faze them. This year, I worked real hard on it not being pressure to win because it’s Keller’s first year to win. Now you put that pressure on that there was a chance to make history and there was pressure. I think it says a lot about this group that they didn’t let it get to them. They rose to the occasion every time.”
Wartburg senior Cole Welter completed a career which can be called nothing short of a dynasty. Starting with his freshman year in high school through his senior year at Wartburg, Welter was part of 16 team titles, either in a dual meet format or individual setting. In addition, Welter won three individual state titles at Don Bosco High School.
Welter capped it off by winning his first national title. He scored a takedown late in the third period for a 5-3 victory over Nicholas Carr of Washington and Jefferson in the 165-pound title match.
“It’s huge. It’s a dream come true honestly. Coming in I wasn’t totally committed to college wrestling. I just pushed myself and committed to it. Capping off this season with a title is huge for me. Being a national champion is something that can never be taken away from you and it can’t,” Welter said. “I couldn’t cap my year off any better than this. It’s been an awesome year and an awesome career.”
Welter had barely made his way off the stage before senior teammate Landon Williams capped his career by winning his second national title, pinning Anthony Bonaventura of Waynesburg in 2 minutes, 46 seconds in the 174-pound title match.
“I knew that if I went out there and got on my offense and got a takedown right away, I was unstoppable. I can turn anyone. That’s my game plan — go out there, get a takdeown and put points on the board,” Williams said, “I told myself after I got fourth last year that I would never watch another championship match in the stands. That was my goal all year.”
All of that followed Wartburg senior Kenny Anderson winning his third national championship with a hard-fought 4-2 sudden victory over Alex Gomez of Ithaca in the title bout at 133. Anderson scored a reversal in the waning seconds to tie the match, then got the decisive takedown midway through the first sudden victory period.
“That’s all heart in overtime, especially in a tournament like this. In overtime you throw skill and conditioning out the window because it’s all heart,” Anderson said. “A few years ago I wasn’t going to school, I wasn’t wrestling. I was just dreaming. And then these guys gave me a shot. I’m extremely lucky. It was pretty big, but you can’t put money on dreams and goals.”
With that, the dynasty was complete. The final stamp was put on the greatness of the Wartburg senior class.
“Landon Williams, right away, comes in and calls us the dynasty, from day one. We have a picture of the dynasty symbol right in our living room. Us four — me, Ryan Fank, (Brett) Yankovich and Landon Williams — call ourselves the dynasty,” Welter said. “Did we know it was going to happen? Who knows. But we knew we were coming to a place where this was possible. So yeah, we just called ourselves the dynasty.”
“We started it when we were freshmen, about a couple weeks in. We really didn’t even know each other. We were like, ‘You know what, this class has the credentials that we could win four in a row. It’s never been done. That’s been the goal ever since,” Williams said. “It’s awesome. I’m glad Cole got to experience winning a national championship with me.”
“Somebody had told me about that at the beginning of this year. That’s incredible. That kid’s got the Midas touch apparently, because that’s pretty incredible. I might have to keep him around on staff next year. That is unfathomable. All that guy knows is championships. What a cool way to go through your career as a high school athlete and as a collegiate athlete. That’s pretty amazing,” Keller said of Welter. “That guy, especially just talking about what he’s done in our room, he’s continued every year to become more and more of a leader. That guy has been on a mission. Every day that guy has walked in our room this year, he has had a fire in his eye. Every single day. A lot of guys come in and they’re there but they’re not there. He was on fire mentally. He’s a team guy and he’s a winner.”
Wartburg clinched the team title early, going 4-1 in the semifinals on Saturday morning to secure their place in history as one of the greatest dynasties in college wrestling history.
“It was big. It was big point-wise and it was big for that group. I’m really crushed for 125 (Gilberto Camacho). I really felt like we were going to go 5-for-5 in that round. It was heartbreaking to start that way. But Kenny answering back, the way he handled that match, that really ignited the spark for the rest of those guys.”
Senior Gilberto Camacho placed fifth at 125 for the Knights and finished the season with a 20-5 record. Camacho lost a heartbreaking 5-4 match to Messiah’s Lucas Malmberg in the semifinals, but came back to beat Matthias Ellis II of Brockport State 3-0 in the fifth-place match.
Also for Wartburg, Punahele Soriano finished seventh at 197 and ends the year with a 37-11 record. He pinned Paul Glover of Brockport State in 2 minutes, 28 seconds to claim seventh.
Welter, fittingly, had the final word for the Knights.
“If eight national titles in four years isn’t a dynasty, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Loras College sophomore James Buss pulled off one of the stunning upsets of the tournament, knocking off top-ranked and two-time defending champion Chad Johnson of Augsburg in the semifinals at heavyweight. Buss got an early takedown, then took advantage of a lengthy video review to catch his breath on his way to a 7-5 victory.
“I wanted to be aggressive to start off with and put him in a position where he was going to have to fight back and keep scoring to win,” Buss said.
Buss topped that by winning his first national championship with a 4-1 win over Wartburg’s Ryan Fank in the finals. Buss becomes Loras’ first national champion in 17 years.
“Finishing off that shot there in the first period was huge. We got in a nice little scramble. He wrestled well out of it. I’ve worked hard on that all year. I just had to elevate his hip a little bit more, put him in danger and he didn’t want to go to his back, so he just bailed out,” Buss said. “It feels great. It’s one of those things where I’m a part of Loras history now. The more I’m a part of Loras history, the better it is for our school. It’s just a love-love relationship.”
Host school Cornell got some history of its own on Saturday night. Senior Alex Coolidge, who lost in the finals a year ago, avenged that loss with a thrilling 6-5 win over Shane Siefert of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the final at 197. Coolidge, trailing 5-3, scored an escape and a takedown in the final minute to win the Rams’ first national championship since 1990.
“I knew there was a short time left. I knew I had to get in on his legs if I was going to win. I got the shot. We got in that scramble. We’ve gone over it a thousand times in practice. It worked out for me. I did everything right it felt like and I didn’t panic,” Coolidge said. “It was hard. Every night since a year ago tonight has been the low. Now I’ve come out of it and I feel great.”
Wartburg wasn’t the only school making history on Saturday. Messiah University brought home the first team trophy in school history, finishing third with 64 points. The Falcons crowned a national champion in junior Kaleb Loht at 141 pounds, had a national runner-up in freshman Lucas Malmberg at 125 and had four All-Americans.
It was a special moment for the Falcons, who are fast becoming a national power at the NCAA Division III level
“We’re excited. It’s the first time in our program’s history that we’re bringing home a trophy. We talked with this team about just doing firsts and I think the guys are focused on bringing home a trophy. I’m very excited for them. It’s not just these five guys this week. If you look up in the stands, the other 25 guys on our team, on their own dime, they road tripped out here to cheer on their five guys. It’s a whole group, not just the individuals. I couldn’t be more proud of the individuals,” said Messiah coach Bryan Brunk, who was named Coach of the Year. “I couldn’t be more blessed to be a part of this. We talk about having one goal. Everything else leading up to it is rehearsal. Our one goal is to win a national championship. But bigger and more important than that is to glorify God with our effort. Not necessarily with wins and losses, but giving our very best and then pointing people to Christ, whatever platform we gain. Whether it’s coming up close in heartbreak and being able to say, ‘Hey, we glorify God with everything we do.’ Or actually winning and being able to thank God for the wins and thank God for the losses because the experience is awesome and he’s our God.”
Malmberg was overwhelmed in the finals by Augsburg’s Mike Fuenffinger, who scored five takedowns and a two-point nearfall in a 12-4 major decision.
Unfazed, Loht came back to become Messiah’s first national champion since Mike Helm in 2000. Loht scored an early takedown and built a 5-0 lead before holding on for a 6-3 victory over Matt Adcock of Wisconsin-Whitewater to claim the title at 141.
“It fueled me. Whether I was in the weight room or digging into God’s word or whether I was just pushing hard in the practice room, it just fueled me,” Loht said of a dislocated right elbow which cost him a chance to wrestle at nationals last year. “We have this saying that whether we win or we lose, our identity isn’t found in the wins or losses, it’s found in our relationship with Jesus Christ. That gives us the ability to free up a little bit, not tense us in those tight matches.
“It’s material possessions by worldly possession. God’s not going to see me at heaven’s gate and say, ‘Oh, you won a national championship. I’m going to let you in. It’s nice to win a national championship, but it doesn’t define me.”
Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s Nazar Kutchytskyy became the 15th three-time Division III champion in history when he pinned Coe’s Dimitri Boyer in 4:20 in the final at 157.
Kutchytskyy, who is from Ukraine, said winning another national championship was easy compared to what his family and friends are enduring back in Ukraine.
“It affects my mind, definitely. My whole family is over there. Only my Mom and Dad are here. All of my family, cousins, brothers, are all over there. I worry about them. Ukrainians are going through a rough time right now. They want to live independent. Russia wants to keep Ukraine so they can use us. Ukrainains fight hard,” Kutchytskyy said.
A total of 45 different schools had All-Americans this year and 15 different schools were represented in the finals.
1. Wartburg, 103 1/2; 2. Wisconsin-Whitewater, 67’ 3. Messiah, 64; 4. Coe, 54; 5. Augsburg, 43; 6. tie, Delaware Valley and SUNY-Cortland, 39 1/2; 8. Johnson & Wales, 37; 9. Wabash, 36; 10. Wisconsin-Oshkosh, 34 1/2.
125 — Mike Fuenffinger (Augsburg) maj. dec. Lucas Malmberg (Messiah), 12-4. 133 — Kenny Anderson (Wartburg) dec. Alex Gomez (Ithaca), 4-2 (SV1). 141 — Kaleb Loht (Mesiah) dec. Matt Adcock (Wisconsin-Whitewater), 6-3. 149 — Ryan Prater (Elmhurst) dec. Robert Dierna (SUNY-Cortland), 4-2. 157 — Nazar Kulchytskyy (Wisconsin-Oshkosh) pinned Dimitri Boyer (Coe), 4:21. 165 — Cole Welter (Wartburg) dec. Nicholas Carr (Washington and Jefferson), 5-3. 174 — Landon Williams (Wartburg) pinned Anthony Bonaventura (Waynesburg), 2:46. 184 — Riley Lefever (Wabash) dec. Brian Broderick (The College of New Jersey), 3-1 (SV1). 197 — Alex Coolidge (Cornell) dec. Shane Siefert (Wisconsin-Whitewater), 6-5. Hwt — James Buss (Loras) dec. Ryan Fank (Wartburg), 4-1.