Small College Sports

"Miami duo" move into national wrestling semifinals for Upper Iowa

Williams and Penichet join Walker in semifinals; Four Peacocks earn All-American honors

Upper Iowa's Damian Penichet (left) wrestles Notre Dame's Taylor Misuna during their 149 lbs. quarterfinal match at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships at the U.S. Cellular Center in northeast Cedar Rapids on Friday, March 9, 2018. Penichet won. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Upper Iowa's Damian Penichet (left) wrestles Notre Dame's Taylor Misuna during their 149 lbs. quarterfinal match at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships at the U.S. Cellular Center in northeast Cedar Rapids on Friday, March 9, 2018. Penichet won. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Damian Penichet approached Maleek Williams, exchanging a high-five and a quick hug.

They had come a long way and waited a long time for this moment, dating back to when they met as prep wrestlers in Miami, Fla.

The longtime friends and Upper Iowa teammates posted quarterfinal wins Friday night, earning their first All-American honors together at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships at the U.S. Cellular Center. They helped the Peacocks go 3-1 in the quarterfinals and move into a fourth-place tie after the opening day.

Notre Dame College (Ohio) was the team leader with 48 1/2 points with three semifinalists. St. Cloud State (Minn.) and California Baptist are second and third with 46 1/2 and 41 points, respectively, and tied with a tournament-high four semifinalists. Upper Iowa and Nebraska-Kearney round out the top five with 33 1/2.

Williams (29-9) dominated Seton Hill’s Vincent Distefanis, 13-4, at 125 pounds. Penichet scored in the final seconds to upset Notre Dame’s second-ranked Taylor Misuna, 5-3, at 149.

“That’s the biggest dream that we have,” Williams said. “We’ve been working on it since we’ve got here, showing them that the Miami Duo can do things together. We showed that today.”

Williams missed the awards stand in his two previous trips. Penichet qualified two years ago, but didn’t make the tournament last season. Both secured a top-six finish.

After the year hiatus, the feat was even more rewarding for Penichet.

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“It is way sweeter,” Penichet said. “I had that goal. I had to make it. I had to All-American. Three years is enough. This is my time. Just like my teammate, Maleek. We’re both from Miami. This is our time.”

The pair wrestled for opposing teams, competing at the same weight as high school freshmen. Williams said they often cheered for each other, regardless of their opponent. They were determined to wrestle in college together and the road led them to Fayette.

“I had to find a way to get him somewhere so we could be side-by-side,” Williams said, “and try to win another title together, getting on the podium.”

Williams and Penichet opened with major decisions. Williams continued that dominance into the quarterfinals, scoring four total takedowns and adding four nearfall in the second period. He tallied 33 total points in two matches. Williams has trust in the process that led to this point.

“We have some attacks that we know work,” said Williams, whose next foe is UNK’s Josh Portillo, a three-time state champ for Clarion-Goldfield-Dows. “We just have to make sure we execute. They’re not going to give it to you. You’ve got to be willing to take it. Just going out there and trusting my training.”

Penichet (28-10) set up his dramatics with a constant barrage of attacks that wore down Misuna. He continued to build confidence with each attempt, finishing the decisive takedown with six seconds left.

“I could see it in his eyes,” Penichet said. “I was getting in on singles. I was getting deep. I couldn’t finish, but every time I kept getting deeper and deeper and he was becoming weaker and weaker. I knew I had to keep on the attack and I’ll get it.”

Returning All-American Josh Walker was the third Peacock to reach the semifinals. Walker has already assured a better finish than his seventh-place performance from a year ago. He has his sights on something greater.

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“I’d say it is stage two of my ultimate goal,” Walker said. “The first part of getting to a national championship is you have to All-American. I’ve made it to the semis. It feels good, but I’m not going to dwell on it too much because I have bigger goals than that.”

Walker (34-6) used a second-period escape and a third-period ride out to drop Notre Dame’s Kelan McKenna, 2-0, at 133. Walker is comfortable in any position and said some wrestlers overestimate their ability underneath him. He broke McKenna late, accumulating about 1:50 of riding time.

“Really, I think it’s a matter of mental toughness,” Walker said. “That’s what a tough ride really is. You have a guy you’re holding down and it’s me versus you. There’s not a single second you don’t feel that burn in every single part of your body, trying to physically overwhelm somebody from that position.”

Sophomore Nick Baumler, a former North Fayette Valley prep, earned All-American status in his first national tournament appearance, giving Upper Iowa four medalists. Baumler (32-10) rebounded from a quarterfinal loss to beat Truman State’s Samuel Reeves in the consolation bracket, moving into the top eight.

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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