Junior Nick Steger and senior Steven DeWitt are headed to Hershey, PA, for the NCAA Championships next Friday. They came very close to having company.
While Steger’s and DeWitt’s success shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed Duhawk wrestling this season, the NCAA Central Region qualifying tournament — hosted by Loras at the Dubuque Five Flags Center on Saturday — featured its share of unexpected excitement.
For DeWitt, Saturday unfolded precisely as planned.
The 5th-ranked senior steamrolled his way through the 157-pound bracket and punched his ticket to Nationals as a Regional Champion. After receiving a first-round bye, DeWitt started his day with a 12-4 major decision over Cornell’s Aaron Engle in the quarterfinal round. In the semifinals, DeWitt defeated Reed VanAnrooy of Luther, the eventual third-place qualifier. DeWitt staved off VanAnrooy’s takedown attempt in the waning moments of the 3rd period to secure the 3-2 decision and silence the otherwise raucous contingent of Norse fans in attendance.
The final round in the 157-pound bracket featured a rematch from just two weeks earlier, as DeWitt squared off against Wartburg’s Drew Waggenhoffer in the championship bout. Just like at the dual meet on Friday the 13th, the matchup ended with DeWitt’s hand being raised. His 5-2 decision capped a performance that earned DeWitt outstanding wrestler of the tournament honors, a distinction his coach considers an understatement.
“I think he’s the most outstanding wrestler in the country,” said Duhawks’ head coach Randy Steward following the award presentation.
For Steger, the road to Hershey took an unexpected detour.
After earning decisions over Dubuque’s Stephen Rosenburg and Coe’s Luke Kremer in the first two rounds of the 141-pound bracket, Steger suffered his first defeat of the season, surrendering a pin fall to Buena Vista’s Nashid Barrow halfway through the third period of their semifinal bout.
“I got pretty mad at myself,” said Steger. “The whole tournament kind of went up in flames.”
If Steger was mad at himself, he took it out on his opponents in the wrestlebacks, pinning Rosenburg and Wartburg’s Kaz Onoo to grab third place and a trip to Nationals.
Sophomore Greg Vance came within heartbeats of joining DeWitt and Steger on their trip to Pennsylvania. The 165-pound Dubuque Wahlert product was a pinning machine on Saturday, scoring 1st period falls in each of his four victories. Vance was knocked to the consolation bracket by eventual first-place finisher Andrew Steiert of Wartburg in the quarterfinal round, and lost an overtime heart-breaker to Luther’s Blake Letney in the third-place match, falling just short of qualifying for the NCAA Championships.
133lb. first-year Michael Triplett also came up short in his third-place match, losing a 10-2 major decision to Nathan Shank of Cornell.
More noteworthy than Triplett’s performance in his final match are the circumstances which brought him there. After advancing to the semifinals with a hiccup-quick pin fall victory over
University of the Ozarks’ Trevor Lister, and a 4-3 decision over Central’s Aaron Anderson, Triplett was bounced from the championship bracket by eventual winner Connor Campo of Wartburg.
Trailing 14-2 in the third period of his first wrestleback, Triplett tossed Coe’s Brady Ruden with an underhook and stuck him for the improbable comeback victory.
“I thought to myself, ‘keep calm and fight back, and you can win the match,” said Triplett. “The third period came, and that’s what happened. I kept calm and I fought back, and I ended up on top.”
Junior Malcolm Watson at 197 pounds and sophomore Evan Weaver at 149 pounds each finished in fifth place.
“We had seven guys wrestling at the end of the day, and I was pleased with that,” said Steward. “I think we’ve got some good mojo going on, and I think the future bodes well.”
While the rest of the team may begin looking to the future, the focus remains squarely on the present for DeWitt and Steger.
“For both of them, their goal ever since they came to Loras has been to win it, so I’m not going to be shy about saying it,” Steward said. “That’s why they’re doing this.”
“To accomplish my goal, I have to come back to the practice room with a new mindset,” Said DeWitt. “I had some good wins, but these aren’t the All-Americans I’m going to be facing (at Nationals).”
Steger will look to use his first loss of the year as motivation for Nationals.
“I’m going to work a lot harder this week,” Steger said. “I’m going to run that much harder, lift that much more weight. Hopefully it all pays off at the end.”