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  • Photo: UCO Athletics

    Photo: UCO Athletics

    2022 DII Contenders or Pretenders?

    DII's top-ranked 133 lber Tanner Cole (photo courtesy of UCO athletics)


    I am sure all of you need some sort of #D2Wrestle corkboard motivation and I am here to provide it. Last time (2019), I did a "Contenders & Pretenders" piece. I got the chance to fly home with one of the pretenders who was able to tell just how wrong I was after they finished in the top-10. Shout out to that 2019 Newberry College team that almost missed their flight out of Cleveland. But looking back, I was pretty accurate overall.

    First off, let me be clear, being a "pretender" is not necessarily a slight against your program. Realistically, there are four teams who can really make a run at the 2022 NCAA Division II Men's Wrestling team national championship. To win the crown, it will take, at minimum, six All-Americans and multiple national finalists. Last season, St. Cloud State University had five finalists and were only able to finish ahead of the University of Nebraska Kearney by one and a half points. The battle for the top-10 is pretty wide-open, but if you want that team trophy, or to take home any of that hardware, it's going to take a full team effort.

    The contenders will be the teams I see chasing that trophy and if your team happens to fall into the pretender category, it's only because I see them missing the firepower needed to upset one of those programs in the standings. They could still be forces to be reckoned with and can enjoy their chance to play spoiler. The fanbases of teams will be expanded as Lopers' fans cheer for anyone wrestling St. Cloud or Central Oklahoma, while the Huskies will be rooting for anyone taking on Central Oklahoma or Kearney. Think Oklahoma State fans cheering for the Hawkeyes against Penn State kind of thing. To the teams who do not make my contender list, prove me wrong and I promise to eat crow.

    Here are the 11 teams I expect to perform the best and my analysis of their team trophy chances, in alphabetical order.

    Ashland University
    National Qualifiers: 5
    Super Regional Champions: 2

    The Eagles will send five athletes to St. Louis in Colt Sponsellor's second season at the helm. They may have put two athletes at the top of the podium in Super Regional III, but they may be hard-pressed to have a finalist at the national tournament. Their best chance at that will be Daniel Beemer (174), but his injury default leaves his status suspect in a brutal weight class. Depending on how the seeds go, anything less than 100% healthwise could make a finals run very unlikely. I know that Chance Esmont (157) went full beast mode in upsetting returning national champion James Wimer (Findlay) and rode that momentum to a championship. If he cannot capture that magic again, he will find himself in a bracket with 12 athletes who were ranked heading into the postseason. Missing multiple-time returning All-American Aidan Pasiuk (184) is probably going to cost them; they just seem to have guys that are in that low All-American (6-8)/Round of 12 areas. That will not be enough to fight for a team trophy and could make them a bubble top-10 team. But hey, I am setting them up with a chance to prove me wrong.

    Outlook: Pretender

    Augustana University
    Qualifiers: 8
    Super Regional Champions: 2

    The Vikings had one of the best Super Regionals by any team who did not win the title. Eight qualifiers were highlighted by two champions in Jack Huffman (133) and Cade Mueller (174). That is great and honestly, head coach Jason Reitmeier would have been my vote for Super Regional coach of the year. But at the national tournament, I am not sure they have the horsepower to score enough points to stay at the top for two days. Their team will be led by potential second seed, Cade Mueller at 174, who could be the first Augustana national finalist since 2019 in Cleveland. One finalist will not be enough. The lineup does have six potential All-Americans if the brackets play out and, if Mueller can win it all, they are going to have a big tournament. The most important wrestlers for them will be Jaxson Rohman (125) and Jack Huffman (133). If these two lightweights can spark the rest of the lineup, this team has a very high ceiling. They could also be the undoing of some of the other teams as they have shown that they are not intimidated in the least by tough competition. You do not go toe-to-toe with St. Cloud State and not find your confidence. I talked myself into it, Augustana University.

    Outlook: Contender

    Gannon University
    National Qualifiers: 8
    Super Regional Champions: 2

    Disclaimer: If Gannon had their returning national champion Alex Farenchak (165), they would immediately skyrocket to a contender. They, however, do not have their returning national champion Alex Farenchak. They do have eight athletes headed to the national tournament, as many as West Liberty, Central Oklahoma, and St Cloud State. I worry that the Knights could find themselves without a national finalist, which makes winning a team trophy a tall task. More than that, they are built similar to Ashland in that they seem to have low All-American/Round of 12 wrestlers. Dom Means (149) and Joel Leise (197) are going to have to shoulder the load to propel head coach Don Henry to a team title. Even if they can secure six All-American finishes, it will not be enough to finish in the top four. A wildcard for their team will be Cameron Page (184); a week ago, I did not think there was any way he qualified for the national tournament. Now headed to St Louis, he can cause all kinds of chaos at a weight where Kearney, Central Oklahoma, and West Liberty all have athletes looking for high finishes.

    Outlook: Pretender

    Newberry College
    National Qualifiers: 5
    Super Regional Champions: 2

    In 2019, I had the audacity to call the Wolves a bunch of pretenders and boy did I hear about it after their top-10 finish. I feel like a thank you was more in order after I provided them with such great motivation headed into the national tournament. In fact, I think it is only right I extend that same opportunity to new head coach Deral Brown. Listen, the Wolves brought the Super Regional crown back to Newberry and crowned two individual champions. That is great. They also have a likely finalist and a possible winner in Isiah Royal (149). The 2021 national champion at 141 pounds returned to the lineup in the second semester and has been perfect. He honestly has not been challenged and is my pick as the top seed at his weight. After him though, the Wolves have Caleb Spears (174) and Evan Carrigan (125). Two athletes who made the run to the Super Regional II finals will threaten All-American status. That is if Evan Carrigan is recovered from whatever injury kept him from the finals and Spears can duplicate the run that saw him defeat Billy Higgins (Kearney) and Josh Jones (McKendree). There are too many "ifs" for me to call the Wolves a contender this season.

    Outlook: Pretender

    St. Cloud State University
    National Qualifiers: 7
    Super Regional Champions: 5

    The St. Cloud State University Huskies have never had to rebuild under head coach Steve Costanzo. They just keep reloading the gun and firing at the Division II field. This season is no different, but they may find that there are teams in St. Louis who are going to be firing back. The Huskies are loaded for bear, though, with five athletes who find themselves seeded in the top four. They also have Garret Vos (133) and Nick Novak (149) as wrestlers who should be expected to be All-Americans. A best-case scenario sees them with finalists in Paxton Creese (125), Joey Bianchini (141), Anthony Herrera (157), Noah Ryan (197), and Kameron Teacher (Hwt). . Remember, they found a way to put five wrestlers into the finals a year ago and if they can do so again they could be on their way to extending their dominance. There is no team in the nation riding the same winning streak as the Huskies after Grand View University finished as the NAIA runner-up a season ago. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but I am fairly certain that St. Cloud State has no desire to abdicate the throne. They will have to be usurped.

    Outlook: Contender

    West Liberty University
    National Qualifiers: 8
    Super Regional Champions: 4

    The meteoric rise of the West Liberty University Hilltoppers began after the conclusion of the 2019 season when Wheeling Jesuit University made one of the dumbest and most shortsighted athletic decisions in Division II wrestling history after the shuttering of Nebraska-Omaha's program. Their loss was West Liberty's gain as head coach Danny Irwin pulled up stakes and took nearly all of his best athletes with him. Now, three years later, the Hilltoppers are back again after finishing fourth in 2021. Led by returning national champion Cole Laya (125), two-time champion Tyler Warner (141), 2019 champion and 2021 finalist Connor Craig, and a heavyweight in Francesco Borsellino, who just keeps getting better, West Liberty can win it all. They are going to need some help, though; Tyler Warner has seemed human since moving up two 141 from 133, taking two losses in his limited action. They will need Ty McGeary (174) to finish high on the podium; he'll start as the fifth seed. Seeding at 174 is going to be key. At 197, four-time qualifier Logan Kemp will need to earn his first All-American finish for West Liberty to have a realistic shot at winning it all. He has been nothing but consistent when healthy for his program, but now in his final trip to the national tournament, they need him to be one of the nation's best. The real wildcard on this team is Francesco Borsellino; the big man has been on a tear this season, but St Louis will see him finally match up against the best Division II has to offer. He should not be overlooked, Irwin has a history of coaching very successful heavyweights. West Liberty is going to have a good tournament; how good could really depend on how much they believe that they are a…

    Outlook: Contender

    University of Central Oklahoma
    National Qualifiers: 8
    Super Regional Champions: 6

    What makes a national championship team in Division II? Add three parts national finalists, a dash of high-level All-Americans, a surprise run by an athlete who catches fire, and a coach who knows what he is doing. Guess what, sports fans, the University of Central Oklahoma has all of those things. The Broncs are one of the real contenders with a chance to end the run of St. Cloud State University. A team with very possible finalist/national champions at 133 (Tanner Cole), 149 (Brik Fililppo), 157 (Tyler Lucas), 184 (Heath Gray), and 197 (Dalton Abney). They also have high All-American chances at 125 (Paxton Rosen) and Shawn Streck (Hwt). If Alex Kaufman (174) plays the role of "spoiler" and finishes on the podium, they have the final ingredient in head coach Todd Steidley ready and waiting. This is a team that has spent time as the number one program this year and they backed it up at the Super Regional IV tournament. I was expecting them to get at least seven through and they managed eight. If they had managed to get Nate Keim (141) through, I would have listed them as the absolute favorites. Do not crown them just yet, but for sure they come is as…

    Outlook: Contender

    University of Indianapolis
    National Qualifiers: 7
    Super Regional Champions: 2


    The University of Indianapolis moved from Super Regional III to Super Regional IV in 2022, which is like moving from AAA to the majors. Super Regional IV may not produce the team champion, yet, but they consistently post the highest number of All-Americans. Iron sharpens iron and in Super Regional IV, there is a lot of that element. The Hounds kicked down the door and put eight wrestlers into the semifinals of the toughest Super Regional in the country. They kept their hot streak going and are sending seven wrestlers to the national tournament. This is the most national qualifiers for head coach Jason Warthan and the most for the program since 2014. They crowned champions at 165 in Jack Eiteljorge and 174 in Andrew Sams. They will also be sending the Bailey Bros (patent pending) after Breyden finished third at 133 and Logan was runner-up at 149. The Achilles heel of this team may end up being a lack of finalists. It is not unbelievable that Dawson Combest (157), Derek Blubaugh (197) or Andrew Sams make the finals, but it would take two or maybe even all of them to make Indianapolis real trophy threats. And they would need the Bailey Brothers and Eiteljorge to climb up the podium as well. There are just too many "ifs" in this lineup for them to be trophy contenders, but despite my outlook for them, I expect them to push as a top-five team.

    Outlook: Pretender

    University of Nebraska-Kearney
    National Qualifiers: 9
    Super Regional Champions: 8

    Let's start with the bad news for the Lopers, they will not have a point-scorer in the 157 weight class that in 2021 netted them an All-American finish. That is the end of the bad news. The good news is they are sending nine wrestlers to St. Louis, with eight of them bringing a Super Regional VI title along. That is twice as many champs as West Liberty, three more than St. Cloud State, and even two more than Central Oklahoma. Do not bet against head coach Dalton Jensen, he has been chasing that title for too long and he wants to bring it back to Kearney. I do want the writer for the Kearney wrestling team to start giving me credit for the term #SuperSenior, but we can talk about that later. I will give credit to a team that is entering the postseason on a heater worthy of a Caesars craps table. Wesley Dawkins (133) and Matt Malcom (165) are top-two seeds at their respective weights. Billy Higgins (184) could've been the number one, but checks in at three. This team may be better than the 2021 group that came up just one and a half points short. Realistically, they could have nine All-Americans and anything less than seven would be disappointing to me. If they are going to do it, though, this needs to be the year. They will be graduating a lot of firepower.

    Outlook: Contender

    University of North Carolina-Pembroke
    National Qualifiers: 6
    Super Regional Champions: 2

    In 2011, the first season with OT Johnson taking over, the Braves finished tied for eighth at the NCAA Division II Men's Wrestling Championship. It has been 11 years since UNC Pembroke has finished the tournament in the top-10. Could 2021 be the season? It will probably take 40 team points and with six national qualifiers, there is a chance. Nick Daggett (125) was a national finalist a year ago and if he can duplicate that run or even finish as an All-American once again, that could be the spark they need. He will need help from his teammates like Jake Piccirilli (149) and Zach Shaffer (Hwt). Jovaun Johnson (184) and Bryce Walker (197) each spent time in my rankings this season and have the potential to score points in St Louis. The person I think could be a real difference-maker for the Braves is Rashaan Vereen (165). He pushed Mitch Dean (Belmont Abbey) in the finals and at this weight, Dean is one of the best. If he joins Daggett on the podium, it could be the start of a big tournament for this program. A big tournament that unfortunately will not result in them challenging for a team trophy.

    Outlook: Pretender

    University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown
    National Qualifiers: 6
    Super Regional Champions: 3

    The dean of Division II wrestling Pat Pecora has done it again. His Mountaincats are once again Super Regional I champions and more than that, they are sending six wrestlers to the national tournament. After not wrestling in 2021 until the Super Regional tournament, his team took full advantage of the extended season and grew stronger. I am going to give you a sneak peek now, but Jacob Ealy (149) is my dark horse national champion at his weight. This team could put wrestlers on the podium at 141 (Caleb Morris) and 165 (Dillon Keane). Brock Biddle (174) is a multiple-time All-American himself and could be the key component of a UPJ run at a trophy. But much like Indianapolis and some of the other pretenders, I just worry they lack the firepower needed to compete with the real favorites. Sorry coach, I love our talks.

    Outlook: Pretender

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