MOUNT VERNON – Competition is sure to be fierce and tension-filled for NCAA hopefuls at Saturday's Central Region Wrestling Championships at the Five Flags Center in downtown Dubuque.
Wrestlers from 11 teams – seven of them nationally-ranked – will battle it out for 30 automatic berths to the NCAA Division III Championships hosted by Cornell March 15-16 in Cedar Rapids. The field features 22 individuals in the latest NWCA rankings.
The Central Region includes No. 30 Cornell, Augustana, Knox and eight Iowa Conference schools in No. 1 Wartburg, No. 14 Coe, No. 22 Luther, No. 24 Dubuque, No. 25 Loras, No. 28 Central, Buena Vista and Simpson.
The tournament begins at 9 a.m. and includes five total sessions. The championship, third-place and fifth-place matches start at 5 p.m.
The margin for error tightens under the new regional format, which limits NCAA berths to the top three finishers in each weight class. In past years, wild-card entries were handed to a select few who didn't finish in the top three.
"The positive thing is 180 (total) kids go to nationals now, which is very positive," Cornell head coach Mike Duroe said. "The downside is we gave up history (and at-large entries) to determine qualifiers. A lot of teams in this regional have had wild cards go on to be All-Americans. It makes it more difficult to qualify in our region. There's no question, this region is the strongest in the country."
Junior Alex Coolidge heads a young Cornell lineup that includes seven individuals making their postseason varsity debuts. Coolidge (26-3) is ranked No. 2 at 197 pounds and undefeated against Division III foes this season. A 2012 national qualifier, Coolidge placed third at least year's Iowa Conference Championships.
Freshman Trevor Engle (27-7) is a championship contender at 149, a weight class that features No. 1 Kodie Silvestri of Wartburg. Engle, the team leader with 94 takedowns, is rated No. 10 by D3wrestle.com.
Junior heavyweight Carl Gaul (26-11) and sophomore 174-pounder Brent Hamm (20-16) were both conference placewinners a year ago. Gaul, who took fourth at the 2012 IIAC Championships, has a team-high 14 pins.
Ben Rosen (24-14), a junior 125-pounder, is a two-time IIAC junior varsity champion. He leads all Rams with 75 career victories.
Joining Engle as first-time postseason competitors are freshmen Zachary Henning (8-11 at 133), Todd Murakawa (7-16 at 141), Danny Klema (10-21 at 157), Kevin Stahmer (14-19 at 184) and sophomore Colin Bertucci (13-9 at 165).
"I like our chances in a lot of weight classes," Duroe said. "Up to this point, it's been a disappointing season. But a lot of that can go away in one day."
The Rams have two recent cases of at-large qualifiers reaching the award stand at the NCAA Championships. In 2011, Timothy Hood (125) took fifth at the conference tournament and wound up eighth at nationals. In 2009, Nick Nothern (133) was NCAA runner-up after placing fourth in the conference.
"If you lose before the finals, you've got a battle on your hands," Duroe said. "There's no room for error in the wrestlebacks."