Taylor Lujan leads 7 UNI Panthers headed to NCAA wrestling

Lujan is UNI's lone MAC champion

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CEDAR FALLS — As Taylor Lujan came off the mat, he cracked a bit of a smile.

The 174-pound Northern Iowa wrestler had just won an individual title against Northern Illinois’ Trace Engelkes with a 12-2 major decision at the Mid-American Conference Championships. As he finished up an interview played over the PA system, he wandered over to the media area, quickly took congratulations from a coach and then started talking.

“I’ve beaten everyone in this field before, I’d beaten this guy before,” Lujan said. “I figured he’d be coming for blood and I just had to stay composed.”

He was, and it might even be representative of how the Panthers wrestled the tournament as a whole. Finishing second, Northern Iowa tallied 106 1/2 points, behind first-place Missouri (154 1/2) but outlasted Central Michigan, which finished third with 103 1/2 points.

More importantly for Northern Iowa, however, is the fact it is sending seven wrestlers to the NCAA Championships. It’s tied with 2014 for the most individual wrestlers UNI head coach Doug Schwab has advanced to the national tournament in a single season.

It’s a terrific accomplishment, made all the sweeter by one other tidbit: every single national qualifier comes back to Northern Iowa next season, with the lone and notable exception of 125-pounder Dylan Peters.

Lujan was the only wrestler to win an individual title from his team, but the other four championship bouts were close and the Panthers also won two third-place matches.

“I love how our guys competed,” Schwab said. “Obviously we wanted more, but it’s time to get seven guys ready to go for the national tournament.”

There won’t be any shortage of motivation. Peters, Max Thomsen (149), Bryce Steiert (165) and Drew Foster (184) lost their championship matches by a combined eight points. Foster’s match was the only that went into overtime — he lost in sudden victory — and as with any close matches, there was controversy.

Thomsen’s match proved to be extremely contentious, as he nearly had a takedown at the end of the match during his 6-5 loss to Missouri’s Lavion Mayes. It was reviewed, but not awarded, though it was extremely close.

Mayes was also hit for stalling late in the match, which just added more fuel to the fire.

Northern Iowa was able to find a bit more success in the third-place matches, as 133-pounder Josh Alber and Jacob Holschlag (184) both ended their tournaments on a high note.

Speaking of high notes, Missouri 197-pounder J’Den Cox won his fourth-straight MAC tournament title, becoming just the second Tiger wrestler to achieve that feat. A 2016 bronze medalist at the Olympics, the senior will go for his third NCAA title in St. Louis.

“I got more work to do,” Cox said. “Gotta tighten up my technique and have a little more faith in myself.”

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