Craig Brester reached the NCAA finals last season at 197 pounds before falling to Big 12 rival Jake Varner of Iowa State (Photo/Tech-Fall.com)"That's how much I believe in him," says Manning.
Brester, an unheralded recruit out of high school, hails from Howells, Nebraska, the same small town with a population of just over 600 people that produced Brad Vering, a 2000 NCAA champion for the Cornhuskers, Olympian, and World silver medalist in Greco-Roman.
So what did Manning see in Brester out of high school that he liked?
"That he had a tremendous work ethic," says Manning. "He had a lot of toughness to him. He had the will to win. That's what I saw in him."
As a four-year starter for the Cornhuskers, Brester has compiled a career record of 90-18 and earned All-American honors the past two seasons. Last season, Brester finished as the NCAA runner-up at 197 pounds, losing a close 2-1 decision in the NCAA finals to Jake Varner of Iowa State, a wrestler he beat two weeks prior at the Big 12 Championships.
An impressive resume for any college wrestler, but especially for an invited walk-on that wasn't even on the radar of most Division I college wrestling coaches.
"When I came out of high school, I wanted to earn a scholarship on the team," says Brester. "I walked on here. I just worked as hard as I could. I did whatever the coaches asked of me. Good things happen when you do that. That's pretty much what happened. Just listening to coaches, doing what they tell me to, just putting everything into it, and slowly I saw that I was making advances and getting better and better ... and it put me to where I'm at today."
Brester and the No. 12 Cornhuskers will head to Minneapolis on Thursday to take on No. 5 Minnesota. Nebraska is coming off a fifth-place finish this past weekend at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, but that came largely without the services of defending NCAA champion Jordan Burroughs (157), who had four teeth damaged in his opening-round match, which caused him to get root canals and default out of the tournament. Burroughs is expected to be in the lineup on Thursday night against Minnesota.
David KlingsheimNebraska placed fourth at the 2009 NCAA Championships, but has six new starters in its lineup, including true freshmen David Klingsheim and C.J. Napier at 125 and 133 pounds respectively. Both were ranked among the Top 30 recruits in the country by InterMat from the Class of 2009. Klingsheim was a four-time California state placewinner, California state champion, and a Junior Nationals double All-American in Fargo this past summer. Napier was a three-time Kansas state champion and three-time All-American at Cadet & Junior Nationals. Both are off to solid starts (Klingsheim is 8-4 and Napier is 11-5), but both failed to place at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational this past weekend.
"Both are pretty talented freshmen," said Manning. "They're still learning how to wrestle at this level and win close matches. They have a ways to go, but they've really made a lot of progress the last two, three weeks. You only get better when you're out there. You can talk all about it when you're a redshirt, but until you actually compete as a redshirt freshman, you don't get that much better. They're getting better right now. They're getting mentally tougher. They're building up resiliency that you need whether you're a freshman or a redshirt freshman. Both are pretty mentally tough kids. They have taken some hard knocks, but they've have bounced back. That's what I look for. They have good character. They've got some resiliency to them. They're only going to get better. I believe in both those guys."
Both true freshmen have tall orders on Thursday night against Minnesota. Klingsheim will face No. 4 Zach Sanders, a returning All-American, while Napier will battle No. 2 Jayson Ness, a three-time All-American.
Mark ManningNebraska started the season ranked No. 7 by InterMat, but fell in the rankings after losing 18-15 to Lehigh at the ASICS Journeymen/Brute Northeast Duals on November 28.
"Six guys have never been in the lineup," said Manning. "There's going to be some growing pains. You take the good with the bad. They're not always going to click on every dual meet. We showed a lot of improvement last weekend (at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational). We had five guys in the round to place. They all lost, but they went 5-2 on the tournament. They didn't go 0-2. They're making progress. Just trying to build consistency in their performances. Therefore, that's what we're really focused on ... Being consistent every time out."
Minnesota is coming off a 21-8 defeat against Oklahoma State on Friday night, a dual meet that saw seven Gophers lose, including Dustin Schlatter, a three-time All-American, NCAA champion, and U.S. World Team member. Minnesota will be without the services of 2008 Olympian Jake Deitchler for the dual meet. Deitchler, who is ranked No. 12 at 157 pounds, has yet to compete this season, but the Gophers are hoping to have him back competing at the Southern Scuffle December 29-30 in Greensboro, North Carolina.
While Manning and the Cornhuskers have a great deal of respect for Minnesota and what the program has accomplished, they're not about to take a backseat.
"They have won some national championships, but we have been there right there with them," says Manning. "They're well-coached. We have a lot of respect for their program. But we don't take a backseat to them. We have done some good things too."
Below is a weight-by-weight breakdown of the dual meet.
125: David Klingsheim (Nebraska) vs. No. 4 Zach Sanders (Minnesota)
Sanders, a returning All-American, is 6-0 this season and has been impressive in all of his matches. He had a gutty, come-from-behind victory over No. 5 James Nicholson of Old Dominion at the NWCA All-Star Classic ... and was dominant against No. 12 Chris Notte of Oklahoma State, winning 11-5. Look for Sanders to get to his offense early and often, and wear out the true freshman from California. Klingsheim has shown glimpses of his potential, but is coming off a disappointing 0-2 performance at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational.
Prediction: Sanders (Minnesota) by Major Decision
133: C.J. Napier (Nebraska)/Ridge Kiley (Nebraska) vs. No. 2 Jayson Ness (Minnesota)
Napier was completely dominated in his college debut against Wisconsin's Tyler Graff, who won by technical fall, 26-10. He bounced back to win the Kaufman-Brand Open in the amateur division. Napier won four matches at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational and came up one victory shy of placing. Kiley, a redshirt freshman who is 6-4 this season, is another option for Manning. But regardless of whether it's Napier or Kiley, Minnesota will be looking for and expecting bonus points from Ness, a three-time All-American. Ness is the all-time pins leader at Minnesota and has pinned eight of nine opponents this season ... and will be looking to make it nine of ten on Thursday night.
Prediction: Ness (Minnesota) by Pin
141: Mike Koehnlein (Nebraska) vs. No. 6 Mike Thorn (Minnesota)
Koehnlein was a two-time junior college All-American at Cerritos College (CA) who is in his first season with the Cornhuskers. He enters Thursday's match with a record of 11-5, but has yet to beat a ranked opponent. He is 0-3 against ranked opponents, with those losses coming by four, five, and six points. Thorn proved last season that he can compete with the best wrestlers in the country, but he has also proved to be inconsistent down the stretch. Thorn has a wide-open style and loves to put points on the scoreboard.
Prediction: Thorn (Minnesota) by Decision
149: Chris Hacker (Nebraska) vs. No. 9 Mario Mason (Minnesota)
Hacker, who is coming off a season that was cut short by a hip injury, is 11-3 this season and won the Kaufman-Brand Open in the elite division, a weight class that included three-time NCAA qualifier Mitch Mueller of Iowa State. However, despite Hacker's impressive record, he has yet to beat a ranked opponent and has been dominated by lesser opponents than Mason. This will the home debut for Mason, a talented freshman from Blair Academy in New Jersey. Mason has been successful at every age group level ... and has wins in freestyle over several college standouts, including Jason Chamberlain (Boise State), Kellen Russell (Michigan), Kyle Dake (Cornell), Tyler Nauman (Pittsburgh), and Kevin LeValley (Bucknell). He's very strong on his feet and can score with a lot of different attacks.
Prediction: Mason (Minnesota) by Major Decision
157: No. 1 Jordan Burroughs (Nebraska) vs. Joe Grygelko (Minnesota)/Brian Peterson (Minnesota)
Burroughs, the defending NCAA champion at 157 pounds, is in the conversation for best pound-for-pound college wrestler in the country. He won arguably the nation's toughest weight class last season that included NCAA champions Jordan Leen of Cornell and Gregor Gillespie of Edinboro, as well as two-time NCAA runner-up Mike Poeta of Illinois. Burroughs is extremely quick and explosive on his feet ... and freakishly strong. He broke some teeth at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational this past weekend, which caused him to default out of the competition, but he has recovered well and is expected to compete on Thursday night. Grygelko has shown a lot of heart filling in for the Gophers, as has Peterson, but Burroughs is on different level and should pick up bonus points in this match.
Prediction: Burroughs (Nebraska) by Technical Fall
165: Tyler Koehn (Nebraska)/James Nakashima (Nebraska) vs. No. 4 Dustin Schlatter (Minnesota)
With Stephen Dwyer moving up to 174 pounds this season, it left a bit of a void at 165 pounds for the Cornhuskers. They have used a few different wrestlers in this weight class this season, but it will likely be either Koehn or Nakashima against Minnesota. Koehn is 9-4 this season with no notable wins, while Nakishima, a junior college national champion last season, made his season debut at the Cliff keen Las Vegas Invitational, where he went 1-2. Schlatter, a three-time All-American and 2006 NCAA champion, made the U.S. World Team this past summer. He's as talented and technically sound as they come. When Schlatter gets his offense going, he's nearly unbeatable. But sometimes he wrestles a bit tight and lets inferior wrestlers hang around. That happened last Friday when Schlatter gave up an early takedown (off his own move) against Oklahoma State's Alex Meade and was never able to get his offense going as he dropped a 3-2 decision in his first match of the season.
Prediction: Schlatter (Minnesota) by Major Decision
174: No. 3 Stephen Dwyer (Nebraska) vs. Scott Glasser (Minnesota)
Dwyer, a three-time NCAA qualifier and 2008 All-American, has made a smooth transition moving up from 165 to 174 pounds this season. He defeated returning All-American Chris Henrich of Virginia at the NWCA All-Star Classic. He was runner-up at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, losing 5-3 to No. 1 Mack Lewnes of Cornell in the finals. Glasser, like Dwyer, made the move up from 165 to 174 pounds this season. Glasser has battled injuries throughout his career, which has led to inconsistency. Last season, Glasser won 12 of his first 13 matches, but struggled mightily at the end of the season, losing 15 of his last 19 matches. Glasser is 8-1 this season, but has yet to see a ranked opponent. Dwyer defeated Glasser in the early part of last season, 6-4, in the finals of the Kaufman-Brand Open.
Prediction: Dwyer (Nebraska) by Decision
184: Josh Ihnen (Nebraska) vs. No. 18 Sonny Yohn (Minnesota)
Expectations were high entering this season for Ihnen after a redshirt season that saw him go 24-5. But this season has been a bit rocky for Ihnen. In 11 matches this season, he has faced four ranked opponents, and with the exception of a 3-2 loss to No. 11 David Craig of Lehigh, Ihnen has not been competitive in any of those matches while being outscored 40-6. Yohn, who is coming off an up and down freshman campaign, was impressive in his first eight matches this season, going 8-0 against marginal competition. But last Friday, in his first test of the season, Yohn was dominated by No. 10 Clayton Foster of Oklahoma State, 13-1, in a match that many expected to be competitive. This is one of the most crucial matches in the dual meet. If the Cornhuskers are going to pull out the dual meet victory, they need to win this match.
Prediction: Yohn by Decision
197: No. 2 Craig Brester (Nebraska) vs. Joe Nord (Minnesota)/Kaleb Young (Minnesota)
Brester, an NCAA runner-up last season, is at the top of his game right now. He's 11-0 and is coming off a tournament title at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. Brester appears to be on a collision course to once again meet Big 12 rival Jake Varner of Iowa State in the NCAA finals. The two could potentially meet three times before the NCAA Championships, though ... at the National Duals, a February 21 dual meet, and at the Big 12 Championships. Minnesota has struggled to find consistency at this weight class ever since Damion Hahn, a two-time NCAA champion and four-time All-American, graduated in 2004. Ryland Geiger, who was one of the nation's top recruits from the Class of 2008, was expected to take over after a redshirt season ... but left the program before the start of the season. Nord, a former heavyweight, or Young, who has been competing at 184 pounds, will likely get the start for the Gophers. Brester has picked up bonus points in seven of his 11 matches this season ... and should be able to do so on Thursday night.
Prediction: Brester by Major Decision
285: No. 7 Tucker Lane (Nebraska) vs. No. 11 Ben Berhow (Minnesota)
Lane and Berhow have proven to be solid Division I heavyweights. Both were NCAA qualifiers last season and both should be in the mix for All-American honors in a deep heavyweight class. But neither wrestler has been able to break into the upper echelon of Division I heavyweights. Lane has had Berhow's number, winning two matches against him last season and picking up another victory over him this season at the Kaufman-Brand Open.
Prediction: Lane (Nebraska) by Decision
Dual Meet Prediction: Minnesota 24, Nebraska 15