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UNK qualifies all 10 wrestlers for nationals

For the third time in his career Matt Malcom qualified for the NCAA DII National Championships.

The UNK Wrestling team debuted their postseason strength in the Super Regional VI in Grand Junction, Colorado last Sunday. The Loper roster entered the meet ranked first in the National Wrestling Coaches Association Division II Top 25 poll. 

Despite their top ranking, the Lopers are far from complacent.

“It’s nice to get that honor, but obviously that is not the end goal,” said head coach Dalton Jensen. “We want to hoist that National Championship trophy come March. They’re recognizing the guys for their hard work and how well they have performed up to this point.”

COVID-19 and budget restraints changed national qualifier limits. In a typical year, the top three wrestlers in each weight class make it to nationals, totalling 180 wrestlers across the nation. The NCAA cut that number to 132 wrestlers this year, with every region sending 18 qualifiers. After some teams opted out, that number dropped to 17 wrestlers for UNK’s region. The top wrestler in each weight class was granted an automatic bid while seven wildcard slots were decided in a coach’s meeting after the meet. 

“Hopefully we put ourselves in a position where fighting for those extra allocated spots to qualify for nationals isn’t in that coach’s meeting,” Jensen said. “Without a doubt, each of our 10 guys is capable of winning the regional tournament.” 

The team features nine nationally ranked wrestlers including star senior Matt Malcom who is currently ranked No. 1 in the 165 lb weight class.

“I think personally that Matt is the best pound-for-pound wrestler in NCAA Division II this year,” Jensen said. “I have no doubt in my mind that he is capable of winning the National Championship this year.”

The Lopers qualified all 10 wrestlers for the finals at each of their respective weight classes. Malcom dominated in his first two matches, winning by a technical fall in each. He was  upset by No. 4 Fred Green of Colorado Mesa in the finals 3-5. 

Wesley Dawkins at 133 pounds won by a pin over Patrick Allis of Western Colorado in the final to take first place. Nick James placed first at 141 pounds by defeating Angel Flores of Adams State in the semifinals 5-2 and Danial Magana of Colorado Mesa in the Finals 5-1.

“Nick’s a young kid— a freshman: he was someone that was going to be in a tight situation to qualify,” Jensen said. “His weight class ended up taking the champion only, so he had to go win that tournament. He took it into his hands and didn’t leave it up to fate.”

Josh Portillo dominated his way into the finals as the No. 2 ranked wrestler at 125 pounds in Division II. He was leading No. 4 Isaiah De La Cerda of Adams State 6-0 in the finals, but was pinned in the closing seconds. Sam Turner also made it to the finals but lost to Adams State’s Noah Hermosillo 5-7. 

Jacob Wasser was another regional champion for UNK at 157 pounds. He defeated Colorado Mines’ Carter Noehre in the semifinals 3-2 and Western Colorado’s Ryan Wilson in the finals 4-0. Terrell Garraway also won in the finals over Seth Latham of Colorado Mesa 3-1. 

Austin Eldredge at 184 pounds and Joseph Reimers at 197 pounds both placed second as well. Both qualified for nationals via a wildcard. 

The biggest surprise for the Lopers was Lee Herrington at 285 pounds. Herrington was the only unranked UNK wrestler going into the meet. Herrington defeated No. 4 Weston Hunt of Colorado Mines in the semifinals 2-1 and turned around to beat No. 7 Gavin Nye of Colorado Pueblo by pinfall. 

“That was a tough weight class,” Jensen said. “Lee took complete control of it and put it into his hands. He left no doubt and took away the regional championship. I’m excited to see how he’ll do in two weeks.”

The five champions automatically qualified and the five runner-ups qualified via wildcard following the post-tournament coach’s meeting. UNK won the Super Regional with 121.5 points and qualified all 10 wrestlers to the National Championships. 

Jensen was named regional coach of the year. 

“The next goal is to win the national championship as a team,” Jensen said. “That’s what the staff wants, that’s what the university wants, that’s what the town wants and that’s what the 10 guys who are going to nationals want. The whole goal and the whole talk of the last couple of weeks is that we are not leaving anybody behind. We’re taking everybody to St. Louis with us.”

One of UNK’s top competitors at nationals, St. Cloud State, qualified eight wrestlers. The Lopers will now turn their focus onto the NCAA Championships that is set to take place on March 12-13 in St. Louis.

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GRANT TIGHE, Sports Editor
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