Top-ranked Wartburg seeks 14th NCAA Div. III national title against tough competition in Cleveland, March 9-10

By Jon Gremmels, Special to | March 08, 2018, 11:23 a.m. (ET)
Photo of returning national champion Eric Devos of Wartburg courtesy of Wartburg College Athletics.

With a target on its back, Wartburg is looking for its 14th national title and seventh in the past eight years this weekend when the best talent in NCAA Division III takes to the mats in Cleveland in the national championships.

Senior Eric Devos, Wartburg's lone returning champion and one of five All-Americans in the Knights' lineup, says the Knights are coming in wrestling their best.

"The momentum is right where we want it to be," Devos said after Wartburg won the Lower Midwest Regional tournament with eight individual champions. "We're wrestling better every time we wrestle."

They will have to continue that Friday and Saturday at the Public Auditorium in downtown Cleveland because several other teams also are hungry for the title.

Wartburg Coach Eric Keller wants his wrestlers concentrating on themselves, though, not the rest of the field.

"I try not to get caught up in anyone else," he said. "It's dangerous when you get caught up in anyone else."

Like Devos, Keller likes the way the Knights are wrestling at the time it means the most.

"Are there things we have to get better at? Yes," Keller said after the regional tournament. "We learned a lot. The high level of competition does prepare you for the national tournament."

There always is strength in numbers, and this year six schools have qualified seven or more wrestlers for the tournament, led by Wartburg and tournament host Baldwin Wallace with nine each.

Augsburg, which is trying to pull even with Wartburg in national team titles (13), picked up an eighth qualifier this week when alternate Sebastian Larson replaced an injured wrestler in the draw at 184 pounds.

Messiah, which has finished sixth or better in each of the past four national tournaments, also has eight qualifiers, while Ithaca and Johnson & Wales have seven each.

Despite those numbers, and the fact the Knights have five top seeds, a second and two thirds, they know they aren't invincible.

"The rankings don't matter; the seeds don't matter," Keller said.

Augsburg and Wisconsin-Whitewater handed Wartburg dual losses this season.

"We used those losses to continue working hard," said Cross Cannone, one of Wartburg's top seeds. "At the end of the day, our goal is still nationals."

Seeding doesn't mean a lot in this tournament, though. It always is an unpredictable tournament, and it's not unusual to have seeded wrestlers knocked off in the first round.

Last year, seven top seeds made it to the finals but only three No. 2 seeds were there, and there were two No. 1 vs. No. 2 matches on Saturday night.

Many familiar faces are gone this year, too, starting with Wabash's Riley Lefever, who last March became just the second wrestler in Division III history to win four national titles. Also gone are two-time champions Lucas Malmberg of Messiah, Kenny Martin of Wartburg, Bobby Dierna of Cortland State, Logan Hermsen of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Zach Roseberry of Delaware Valley.

Hoping to join that group of two-time champions are Wartburg's Eric Devos and Messiah's Ben Swarr, who have traded victories against each other in the past two championship matches at 174 pounds; Wisconsin-Whitewater's Jordan Newman; and 2015 champion Matt Grossmann of Wilkes.

"It's cool," Devos said of the rivalry he and Swarr have developed at the national meet. "If anything, it definitely is motivational. Last year it was easy to get motivated (having lost in 2016), and this year more so to stay there."
Two of his teammates have unfinished business after finishing second.

Like Devos (14-0), Cannone also comes in with a perfect record (30-0) after taking second to Dustin Weinmann of Wisconsin-La Crosse in last year's final at 141 pounds. Cannone is up a weight this season.

"Last year, finishing second was tough," Cannone said. "I've been working hard. Devos has been a big influence; he's pushed me."

Cannone starts the strength of the Wartburg lineup at 149. Following him is senior Logan Thomsen, the Knights' other returning national runner-up.

"Last year I was torqued off that I fell a point short," said Thomsen, who dropped an 8-7 decision to Dierna in the 157-pound finals last year.

Thomsen comes in seeded second this season after splitting a pair of matches with Augsburg's Ryan Epps, who also has one loss.

"I had one little hiccup," Thomsen (29-1) said of his season. "I made a poor decision, and it cost me. It did not feel good, but I'd rather get caught doing something in a dual than at nationals or in the national finals."

Following Thomsen in the lineup at 165 pounds is unbeaten freshman Mike Ross, like Cannone a Connecticut product who has found his way to Iowa. After that it's seniors Devos at 174, third-seeded Tyler Lutes at 184 and top seeds Kyle Fank (197) and Lance Evans, a two-time All-American at heavyweight who suffered his first loss of the season at the regional tournament.

Augsburg probably is the top threat to Wartburg. For all those who said the Auggies benefited too much from being in the West Regional -- the smallest and least successful on the national scale -- the past few years, they showed they were just as tough when the size of the region nearly doubled and some of the best teams from the old Midwest Region were shifted over to form the new Upper Midwest Region.

Augsburg still came out on top, led by its group of super sophomores. Three of them, Ryan Epps (157), David Flynn (141) and Lucas Jeske (165) are ranked either first or second in the nation, and another, Victor Gliva (125), is a returning All-American. Junior Sam Bennyhoff (133) also is making a return trip to nationals.

While Baldwin Wallace might not be in the class of Augsburg or Wartburg yet, it might be the best story in Division III wrestling this year.

Getting nine qualifiers to the national tournament when its held in your backyard should do nothing but raise the program's stock in the eyes of its fans and future recruits.

Baldwin Wallace and the rest of the schools in the Central Regional might have been helped by region reorganization that shifted several of its top teams west, but the Yellow Jackets also have made nice strides in the program.

Junior Anthony Arroyo is a returning All-American at 165 pounds, and Chris Doyle (125), Tyler Maclellan (197) and Gabe Mahaney (heavyweight) all are making return trips to the national tournament. Transfer Justin Ransom has filled in nicely at 174, while sophomores Dante Ginnetti (133) and Charlie Nash (141) have been solid contributors, along with freshman Stanley Bleich (149), a three-time Ohio state placewinner in high school.

Besides Swarr, Messiah has returning All-Americans in Jeff Hojnacki (165) and Kyle Koser (197), and seniors Hunter Harris (133) and Derek Beitz (184) also are national qualifiers for the second year in a row.

Messiah, Johnson & Wales and Ithaca all have the numbers not to be ignored.

Johnson & Wales caught a lot of eyes last year with a fourth-place finish. National runner-up Jay Albis is back, although he cut from 133 to 125, a spot held previously by senior All-American Bobby Jordan. Joao Vicente returned to wrestling after a two-year absence and has made an impact at 133, and Joe Ferinde is a returning All-American at 141.

Ithaca's Jake Ashcraft was ranked No. 1 at 184 pounds, although he got the No. 2 seed after defending champion Jordan Newman of Wisconsin-Whitewater made a late-season drop from 197 to 184. Nick Velez (165) and Jake O'Brien (heavyweight) have been on the awards stand at nationals, and sophomore Ben Brisman (141) is ranked fifth in one national poll and fourth in the other.

Stevens might not have the numbers -- although it has five qualifiers -- but the Ducks have top seeds at 133 and 141 in sophomore Troy Stanich and freshman Brett Kaliner, respectively.

Weight-by-weight preview

Seeds -- 1. CJ Pestano (Central), 27-0; 2. Jay Albis (Johnson & Wales), 43-2; 3. Jonathan Haas (Brockport State), 32-1; 4. Peter Del Gallo (Southern Maine), 39-1; 5. Carlos Fuentez (Wheaton), 34-2; 6. Christopher Doyle (Baldwin Wallace), 25-6; 7. Victor Gliva (Augsburg), 28-6; 8. Nick Mancini (Mount Union), 24-2.
Returning All-Americans -- Albis 2-133-2017; Gliva 8-125-2017; Haas 3-125-2017; Pestano 4-125-2017, 2-125-2016.
Notable -- This could be one of the toughest weights in the tournament. Top seed CJ Pestano and No. 2 seed Jay Albis are a pair of former national runners-up, third seed Jonathan Haas beat Pestano in last year's third-place match and the next two seeds, Peter Del Gallo and Carlos Fuentez, come in with a combined73-3 record.
First-round match to watch -- Brennen Doebel, one of Wartburg's eight regional champions, could spark the Knights right off the bat if he could pull off an upset against fourth-seeded Peter Del Gallo of Southern Maine. Del Gallo has great bloodlines -- brother Daniel was the national champion at 149 pounds last year -- and Peter Del Gallo was a four-time state champion in Maine.

Seeds -- 1. Troy Stanich (Stevens), 32-0; 2. Owen Doster (Wabash), 25-2; 3. Brock Rathbun (Wartburg), 21-5; 4. Sam Bennyhoff (Augsburg), 32-5; 5. Anthony Munoz (Elmhurst), 26-4; 6. Ricky Cavallo (Johns Hopkins), 29-6; 7. Austin Sisco (Oneonta State), 34-6; 8. Matthew Noble (New York University), 25-4.
Returning All-Americans -- Doster 7-133-2017; Stanich 3-133-2017.
Notable -- Sophomore Troy Stanich of Stevens enters as the top seed for the second year in a row. Stanich, who finished third last year, has an interesting first-round match as he goes up against Joao Vicente of Johnson & Wales, a two-time Rhode Island State champion who returned to the mats for the first time since the 2014-15 season.
First-round match to watch -- Second-seeded Owen Doster of Wabash faces Hunter Harris of Messiah. If that sounds familiar, it is. They squared off last year in a pigtail consolation match, which Doster won by pin.

Seeds -- 1. Brett Kaliner (Stevens), 37-2; 2. Josh Martin (Cornell), 28-3; 3. Jimmy McAuliffe (Elmhurst), 21-3; 4. David Flynn (Augsburg), 19-4; 5. Joseph Ghione (Elizabethtown), 24-4; 6. Joseph Ferinde (Johnson & Wales), 32-5; 7. Ben Brisman (Ithaca), 34-5; 8. Chase Wilson (Manchester) 31-5.
Returning All-Americans -- Ferinde 6-141-2017; Flynn 3-141-2017.; Matt Grossmann (Wilkes) 1-133-2015; Chris Williams (Millikin) 4-133-2017, 6-141-2016.
Notable -- Despite earning All-America honors the past two years, Millikin junior Chris Williams didnt even get seeded this year. But Williams (22-3) will get a chance to prove he was slighted when he faces eighth-seeded Chase Wilson of Manchester in the first round.
First-round match to watch -- Elmhurst's Jimmy McAuliffe is one of two freshmen seeded in the top three at this weight, but he didn't get an easy draw. He will face Wilkes' Matt Grossmann, who won the national title at 133 pounds when he was a freshman in 2015.

Seeds -- 1. Cross Cannone (Wartburg), 30-0; 2. Jimmy Davis (Loras), 25-3; 3. Gregory Warner (York), 31-3; 4. Bradan Birt (Millikin), 34-3; 5. Alex Wilson (Augsburg), 32-5; 6. Jarrad Lasko (John Carroll), 27-5; 7. Sean Peacock (Brockport), 24-5; 8. Austin Bethel (Wabash), 28-5.
Returning All-Americans -- Cannone 2-141-2017; Davis 5-157-2017; Brendon Seyfried 7-141-2017; Warner 8-141-2017, 5-141-2016.
Notable -- Three of the top four seeded wrestlers at this weight come out of the Lower Midwest Regional.
First-round match to watch -- A pair of ranked wrestlers square off when fourth-seeded Bradan Birt of Millikin faces Trevor Corl of Lycoming. Birt, a funky freshman, comes into the match ranked sixth by the coaches, while Corl, a junior, is seventh. Each has just three losses on the year.

Seeds -- 1. Ryan Epps (Augsburg), 38-1; 2. Logan Thomsen (Wartburg), 29-1; 3. Zach Wilhelm (Stevens), 43-2; 4. Mark Choinski (Wisconsin-Oshkosh), 19-1; 5. Cole Erickson (Coe), 16-7; 6. Raymond Jazikoff (New York University), 45-5; 7. Kyle Hatch (Wabash), 39-2; 8. Egan Berta (North Central), 33-6.
Returning All-Americans -- Choinski 6-157-2017; Erickson 6-149-2017; Thomsen 2-157-2017; Wilhelm 7-149-2017.
Notable -- The top two seeds represent the two teams that have won every title since 1995. Augsburg's Ryan Epps (top seed and No. 1-ranked) and Wartburg's Logan Thomsen (second seed and second-ranked) each comes into the tournament with one loss, each against the other. Thomsen won 7-4 when Wartburg lost to Augsburg 21-17 at the National Duals, but Epps handed Thomsen a 10-6 loss when the Auggies lost 21-13 in a dual at Wartburg.
First-round match to watch -- Freshmen Kyle Hatch of Wabash meets freshman Kaidon Winters of Rochester Institute of Technology meet in the opening round. Hatch was a three-time placewinner in Indiana, and Winters was a state placewinner in Pennsylvania last year.

Seeds -- 1. Mike Ross (Wartburg), 25-0; 2. Lucas Jeske (Augsburg), 35-1; 3. Anthony Arroyo (Baldwin Wallace) 32-1; 4. Frank Aiello (Wheaton), 12-1; 5. Andrew Tolbert (Ferrum), 24-5; 6. Thomas Poklikuha (Stevens), 19-1; 7. Taylor Shay (Roger Williams), 36-6; 8. Nick Velez (Ithaca), 31-5.
Returning All-Americans -- Arroyo 5-165-2017; Jeske 3-165-2017; Velez 7-165-2016.
Notable -- Ithaca's Nick Velez, a 2016 All-American, is competing in the event for the fourth consecutive year.
First-round match to watch -- A pair of returning All-Americans could square off if Anthony Arroyo of Baldwin Wallace beats Nick Remke of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. The winner of that pigrail match will take on Messiah's Jeff Hojnacki, who placed sixth in the 2016 national tournament.

Seeds -- 1. Eric Devos (Wartburg), 14-0; 2. Jairod James (Mount Union), 18-1; 3. Ben Swarr (Messiah), 38-2; 4. Darden Schurg (Wabash), 35-2; 5. Jon Goetz (Wisconsin-Platteville), 25-1; 6. Jake Voss (Coe), 28-6; 7. Daniel Kilroy (The College of New Jersey), 21-6; 8. Brandon Conrad (Lycoming), 29-5.
Returning All-Americans -- Devos 1-174-2017, 2-174-2016; Kilroy 8-174-2017; Swarr 2-174-2017, 1-174-2016.
Notable -- Wartburg's Eric Devos and Messiah's Ben Swarr have met in the past two finals at this weight class, but Mount Union's Jairod James might prevent a rubber match. James, a transfer from Kent State, placed fourth in the Mid-American Conference tournament in 2016 and was off to a 17-5 season last year before he was dismissed from the team.
First-round match to watch -- Tanner Vassar, one of five sophomore national qualifiers for Augsburg, has a first-round match against another sophomore, returning All-American Dan Kilroy of The College of New Jersey.

Seeds -- 1. Jordan Newman (Wisconsin-Whitewater), 22-3; 2. Jake Ashcraft (34-3), Ithaca; 3. Tyler Lutes (Wartburg), 24-1; 4. Kharmri Thomas (Johnson & Wales), 42-2; 5. Christos Giatras (Augustana), 25-2; 6. Keajion Jennings (Millikin), 24-3; 7. John Boyle (Western New England), 34-5; 8. Dan Squires (Wisconsin-Stevens Point), 33-8.
Returning All-Americans -- Giatras 7-184-2017; Newman 1-184-2017, 8-174-2015.
Notable -- After competing all season at 197 pounds -- where he was ranked No. 1 in the nation -- Wisconsin-Whitewater's Jordan Newman cut down to 184 for the regional tournament and is back to defend his national title.
First-round match to watch -- Augsburg got an eighth qualifier when alternate Sebastian Larson replaced two-time national qualifier Grant Wedepohl (Wisconsin-Platteville) because of an injury. Larson has a tough first-round match, having drawn returning All-American Christos Giatras of Augustana.

Seeds -- 1. Kyle Fank (Wartburg), 29-2; 2. Guy Patron (Loras), 31-3; 3. Kyle Koser (Messiah), 44-3; 4. Etiini Udott (Centenary), 30-4; 5. Devon Carrillo (Wesleyan) 35-2; 6. Triston Engle (Brockport State), 38-4; 7. Wesley Schultz (Wisconsin-La Crosse), 25-8; 8. Michael DiNardo (Johnson & Wales) 40-3).
Returning All-Americans -- Engle 4-197-2017; Fank 5-197-2017; Patron 3-197-2017.
Notable -- Wisconsin-La Crosse's Wesley Schultz is no stranger to championship matches. A high school state champion in Wisconsin as a senior, Schultz took second in the NCWA Championships as a college freshman at Rochester Community and Technical College and then was the NJCAA runner-up for Iowa Lakes the following year. After a stop at Wyoming last year, he is back in his home state and comes in seeded seventh.
First-round match to watch -- A pair of regional runners-up, each with three losses, square off when Otterbein's Drew Kasper faces Guy Patron of Loras. Both are former high school state champions, Patron in Louisiana and Kasper in Ohio.

Seeds -- 1. Lance Evans (Wartburg), 19-1; 2. James Bethel (Oneonta State), 31-3; 3. Jake O'Brien (Ithaca) 23-5; 4. Isaiah Bellamy (Wesleyan), 32-2; 5. Jake Evans (Waynesburg), 46-3; 6. Austin Bellile (Milwaukee School of Engineering), 11-0; 7. Quin Gilliam (Loras), 24-3; 8. Garrett Wesneski (Lyoming), 37-2.
Returning All-Americans -- Bethel 5-Hwt-2017, 4-Hwt-2015; J Evans 7-Hwt-2017; L. Evans 4-Hwt-2017, 3-Hwt-2016; O'Brien 8-Hwt-2017.
Notable -- Waynesburg's Jake Evans, a 2007 graduate of Elizabeth Forward High School in Pennsylvania, is one of the oldest competitors in the field. He's an elder than certainly deserves respect, though, coming in with a 46-3 record after placing seventh in the nation last year.
First-round match to watch -- Cornell's Tyler Ortmann knocked off top-ranked Lance Evans in the regional semifinals, handing the top seed his only loss this season. As a result, Ortmann shouldn't lack any confidence for his first-round matchup against Oneonta's Jmes Bethel, a two-time All-American.