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Loper Wrestling pins down fourth National Championship

UNK’s Matt Malcom wrestles against Shane Gantz in the championship match. Photo by Brayden Willis/MIAA


The UNK Lopers left the 2022 NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships with a national title, the team’s first since 2013. UNK was runner-up last year, falling to St. Cloud State by just 1.5 points.

This time around, the Lopers delivered a dominant performance with a school-record 127 points, which shattered their previous record of 108.5 from 2007. The next closest team was Central Oklahoma, with 86 points.

“You don’t wish you got second last year, but in hindsight now being on this end of it, I’m glad that happened,” said UNK coach Dalton Jensen. “I think it was maybe the extra push and motivation that these guys needed to go get the job done. Not just the job done being National Championship, but just the fashion that they did it, the dominant performance they had and the points that they put up. I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”

Capping off the Lopers’ team victory was Matt Malcom, who won his final match against Shane Gantz of Wisconsin-Parkside 1-0 to become the 165-pound individual champion. Malcom led the Lopers with 22.5 team points and is also the first five-time All-American in UNK history.

“Matt’s someone special; I don’t know if I’ll have another athlete like him,” Jensen said. “The way he can compete and be relied on, but also just the coach-athlete relationship that I had with him was just something special. For him to have a cinderella story ending of winning an individual and team title, there’s nobody more deserving than Matt Malcom.”

This was Malcom’s second individual title with the Lopers and he finished the season with a 30-2 record. While he has had an illustrious career with UNK, he is more proud of the team’s success as a whole. 

“The team title is all we’ve been thinking about for five years now,” Malcom said. “Always said I would’ve done anything to give up any accolade I would ever get and give it all back to the team. I’m more proud of the team title than any accomplishment I’ve ever had.”

The Lopers had five athletes advance to the semifinals. Alongside him was Josh Portillo at 125 pounds, Sam Turner at 149 pounds, Austin Eldredge at 174 pounds and Billy Higgins at 184 pounds. Portillo and Turner advanced to the championship round and placed second, while Eldredge and Higgins finished fourth.

“This is an unbelievably talented group of guys and they’re great wrestlers, but at the end of the day you gotta be a great competitor and put it on the line,” Jensen said. “We kinda fell short in some areas last year in the National Championship and this year these guys just left no doubt”

Outside of the five Lopers who made it to the semi-finals, UNK had three other wrestlers battle their way through the consolation rounds after losing in the quarterfinals on Friday. Wesley Dawkins at 133 pounds lost to Garrett Vos of St. Cloud State in the quarterfinals, but went on to win four consecutive matches to finish third. Kearney High graduates Nick James at 141 pounds and Lee Herrington at 285 pounds finished fifth.

Out of the eight Lopers who earned All-American status, four were fifth-year seniors. Being so close to the championship in 2021 was a substantial motivation to come back and finish the job this year.

“Collectively these guys wanted to come back and do something special together,” Jensen said. “That senior class is gonna be one I will never forget. I got some extra time with them that I wouldn’t normally get with a student-athlete, getting that extra year with them. They’re going to be greatly missed.”

The Lopers’ incredible performance earned them their fourth national championship and Jensen’s first as head coach.

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