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Div. III Nationals Preview: Wabash's Lefever seeks fourth national title and Wartburg enters as team favorite

By Jon Gremmels, Special to TheMat.com | March 07, 2017, 6 p.m. (ET)

Photo of Riley Lefever courtesy of Wabash College.

Riley Lefever is looking to make history this weekend at the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and if he can lead his Wabash College team to a history-making weekend, so much the better.

Lefever, who hasn't lost to a Division III wrestler, will try to become just the second four-time champion in Division III history, joining Augsburg's Marcus LeVesseur (2003-2007). While he can't match LeVesseur's record of never losing a college match, he would have bragging rights in that his four titles came in successive years after finishing high school.

Led by Lefever, Wabash also is one of a handful of schools hoping to deny meet favorite Wartburg from winning a record 13th national team title.

"I think we're definitely in position, getting seven guys through," Wabash Coach Brian Anderson said. "Getting through our region (Midwest) is not easy. The guys we're going out with can produce a lot of points."

Lefever is a pretty good bet to bring in a large number of points by himself. In winning his third national title last year, he pinned two of his opponents and recorded major decisions against the other two.
There is a difference this year, though: After spending three years at 184 pounds, Lefever moved up to 197 this season.

"I thought it would be a challenge, an initial plan that we would give it a run and see how it played out," Anderson said.

When Lefever beat Nebraska's Aaron Studebaker in November at the Harold Nichols Cyclones Open in Ames, Iowa, Anderson had the answer.

"After his win against Studebaker, we knew he was in the right place," Anderson said., "He did what he needed to do at the weight. I was cautious with the change; he was fully confident."

It will take more than Lefever for Wabash to challenge for the top spot and aim for the program's high-water mark of a third-place finish in 2015. But Lefever is surrounded by plenty of talent.

Junior Devin Broukal was the national champion at 133 pounds a year and is competing at 141 this year. Senior Nick Bova placed eighth at 157 a year ago, and senior Connor Brummett, a returning national qualifier at 165, has lost just once in 34 matches.

"It will certainly help that we have these four staple guys," Anderson said. "All are capable of finding the podium."

To challenge for a top spot, Wabash also will need production from three newcomers to nationals: freshman Owen Doster (133 pounds) and sophomores Griffin Schermer (149) and Darden Schurg (174)

The Little Giants aren't alone with big hopes of knocking off the Division III giant, Wartburg.

Messiah, which has risen in the ranks of Division III along with Wabash the past few years and was the runner-up a year ago, has six qualifiers, led by defending champions Lucas Malmberg at 125 and Ben Swarr at 174. Larry Cannon was an All-American at 157 last year who is at 165 this year, and Kyle Koser is a returning national qualifier at 197.

Ithaca, the last team other than Wartburg or Augsburg to win the national title, also has six qualifiers and three returning All-Americans. Seniors Jimmy Kaishian (125) and Carlos Toribio (197), and junior Nick Velez (165) hope to return to the awards stand.

Augsburg, which is tied with Wartburg with 12 national titles, brings eight qualifiers to the tournament, but with five freshmen in the lineup, the Auggies might be a year away. On the other hand, two years ago they surprised almost everyone by winning the title, so they know what it takes to silence the critics.

Two-time finalist Donny Longendyke, the 2015 champion at heavyweight, leads the Auggies.

Wartburg remains the team to beat, and this year the Knights qualified their entire team.

"Unity is a big thing," Coach Eric Keller said. "This group of 10 has been together all season long. It makes it that much sweeter when they're all in it together. That's this group. When you don't have 10 you have that missing link."

There are few, if any, weak links, too. Seven Wartburg wrestlers enter the tournament ranked third or higher in the NWCA rankings.

The Knights lost three national runner-ups from last year's team but still have six returning All-Americans. Kenny Martin is looking for his third title at 149 pounds, and Eric Devos is back after taking second at 174. Both are unbeaten this year, as is heavyweight Lance Evans, who placed third a year ago.

"I'm confident our guys are going to wrestle at their highest level," Keller said. "They have responded every time they've had a challenge.

"We've tried to keep the focus on us. If we do and we wrestle at our highest level of ability, the results should take care of itself."

Jon Gremmels has covered the past 25 NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships. Follow him on Twitter @d3onthemat.