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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CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa has a golden opportunity.
One the Panthers have awaited the entire season. The moment has arrived.
UNI wrestling will host the Mid-American Championships for the first time, holding the two-day event at the McLeod Center. The national qualifier begins Saturday at 11 a.m. The Panthers began competing in the MAC tournament in 2013 and are vying for their first conference tournament title.
“Obviously, you look forward to hosting an event,” said UNI Coach Doug Schwab, who is in his ninth season as Panthers head coach. “Anytime we get a chance to have a national qualifier on our home ground I think it’s an advantage for us. We’ve been talking about it all year and built it up. Now, it’s here.”
The Panthers were unbeaten in MAC duals, closing the regular season with a victory at No. 7 Missouri. The Tigers and Panthers are the two top contenders with No. 24 Central Michigan in the next tier. The normally intense and fiery Schwab said he is more at ease than ever as a coach. He said he feels the Panthers are prepared for the postseason.
“I know our guys are excited,” Schwab said. “They’re ready.”
Dylan Peters (125), 165-pounder Bryce Steiert, Taylor Lujan at 174 and 184-pounder Drew Foster were unbeaten in MAC duals this season. Lujan, Foster and UNI 133-pounder Josh Alber are the top seeds, while Steiert is the second seed. Former Union four-time state champion Max Thomsen is third at 149, despite being ranked seventh nationally.
The Panthers normally wrestle in the West Gym, but had a lackluster showing in a dual against Oklahoma at the McLeod Center in February. They are set to put on a show for the hometown crowd.
“I can tell you having a large home crowd, having people behind them, getting excited about how they’re competing does make a difference,” said Schwab, who was a 2001 national finalist for Iowa when the Hawkeyes hosted the NCAA tournament. “You can see in guys’ eyes when they’re ready to go. Our guys are ready to go.”
Peters (6-5) is a two-time All-American and has suffered through injuries this season. He is the sixth seed and the MAC receives five automatic berths to the national tournament.
“He’s a competitor,” said Schwab, noting that Peters was an All-American last year with a torn ligament. “We just wanted to see that fire in his eyes. I saw it.
“That is one guy when you see fire in his eyes you want to get out of his way.”
Thomsen (25-4) is one of three nationally-ranked wrestlers and six in the top 29 NCAA ratings at 149. Thomsen will vie for one of five automatic berths. Thomsen has split with Missouri’s top-seeded Lavion Mayes, beating him in the dual on Feb. 12, and lost to Central Michigan’s No. 2 seed Justin Oliver in mid-January.
“He’s always rose to the occasion,” Schwab said. “You’ve seen from one match to the next he usually makes pretty good adjustments. He’s able to do it with Mayes the last match. A pretty good chance he’ll see Oliver early on in the tournament and I know he will be ready and make some adjustments.”
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