INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
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DUBUQUE — Entering the third period holding a slim 1-0 lead, Luther 184-pounder Justin Kreiter needed to do something.
His opponent, Augustana’s Christos Giatras, was tiring but still dangerous. Both wrestlers knew they had already punched their tickets to the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships, but it certainly still is better to go through as a regional champion.
As the seconds ticked away, Kreiter finally saw an opening he liked and took it, adding on two points. Giatras managed to cut loose, but immediately found himself taken down twice more.
A stalling point and a riding time point would put the final at 9-2.
“We’ve wrestled before and it’s been close,” Kreiter said. “In that third I didn’t want it to come down to that again.”
Joining Kreiter in La Crosse, Wis., for nationals will be two other Norse — Tristan Zurfluh (165) and 174-pounder Javier Reyes. Zurfluh fell in the finals against Central’s Ryan Vandall while Reyes worked his way through the consolation bracket after losing in the quarterfinals.
Wartburg won the team portion of the meet, leading the pack with 190 points. Loras finished in second with 122.5 while Coe and Central College for third with 111.5 apiece. Luther rounded out the top five, scoring 90.
The Knights pushed through wrestlers at all 10 weights.
“They fought tooth and nail,” Wartburg head coach Eric Keller said. “Every single match.”
Ending with five winners and seven top-two finishes, the Knights easily were the most dominant team in the field. They scored 292 match points and also led the tournament in pins with 16.
Coe actually finished second in total pins with 12, but advanced just one wrestler to the national championships. The Kohawks’ Cole Erickson used one to secure his spot, pinning Augustana’s Matt Sears in 3:44.
Erickson was happy, but the moment was bittersweet.
“There’s some guys that should be moving on that aren’t,” Erickson said. “I don’t really know what to say other than that we’re disappointed overall.”
It’ll be a long offseason for the Kohawks, who had eight wrestlers finish fourth, fifth or sixth — agonizingly close to moving on.
With only the top three moving on in a tournament Keller called a “dogfight” it’s an achievement to even get a wrestler into the finals.
Especially when Loras’ Clint Lembeck was given the outstanding wrestler of the tournament award for pinning everyone he came across in his bracket. A former Xavier prep, Lembeck earned a fall in 6:07 during the 141-pound finals.
His brother, Ross, also wrestles for Loras after spending a year on the University of Iowa roster.
While Ross was not able to scratch his way into the national championships, Clint perhaps is headed to La Crosse as a potential favorite.
“It hurt to not see him not qualify,” Lembeck said. “It sucked, but I thought the best thing I could do would be to go out and wrestle for those guys who put in the work but didn’t have the outcome they wanted.”
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