Max Thomsen owns memories of watching college wrestling’s marquee tournament.
He was inspired by the wrestlers he witnessed win titles and dominate the field. As he grew in his own wrestling career, Thomsen aspired less to be like them and expected more to be in their shoes.
“I remember watching guys like (Oklahoma State’s) Jordan Oliver and (Penn State’s) David Taylor,” Northern Iowa’s redshirt freshman said. “I remember the points they’d score and how effortless they’d make it look. “As I progressed through high school and started doing better on the national scene, it was a goal right away.”
Thomsen is one of seven Panther qualifiers for the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Mo., beginning Thursday. Thomsen (27-5) is seeded seventh and faces Drexel’s Matthew Cimato (26-9) in the opening round at 149 pounds.
“I’m just believing in myself and that I belong here,” Thomsen said. “I believe I’m one of the best 149-pounders in the country.”
Thomsen’s skill made him a highly-touted recruit. Confidence has made him an All-American candidate. UNI Coach Doug Schwab said he has seen the mental strides, leading to a more relaxed wrestler in competition that continues to attack and score points.
“There’s a difference between wrestling with question marks or exclamation points,” Schwab said. “He switched from those question marks to a lot of belief.”
Thomsen is not one to wait for his turn to thrive, which was evident when he stepped on the mat as a freshman to begin a four-time state champion career for Union. With a small window of just four years, Thomsen was determined to succeed immediately and not waste any of those campaigns.
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“From the start of the season, he didn’t come in standing in line and wanting to just be a part of it,” Schwab said. “He wants to make his mark.”
Thomsen has already notched his share of notable victories. He beat Missouri’s third-seeded Lavion Mayes in the regular-season finale, helping the Panthers drop the Tigers for the Mid-American Conference dual title.
“He’s made a huge jump,” Schwab said. “He’s shown a lot of growth on and off the mat. I’m excited for him.”
The way he handled the few losses has propelled him. Thomsen has shown maturity and resolve, especially after setbacks. Schwab has praised him for his ability to improve and adjust after a loss, avenging one to Central Michigan’s 10th-ranked Justin Oliver in the conference tournament. He learned from his last battle with Mayes, losing a controversial one-point decision in the MAC Championships final.
“I’m right there,” Thomsen said. “You always want to finish the finals with a championship, so it definitely stings that I got second. I’m excited for the NCAA’s.”
Thomsen already experienced a dose of NCAA dramatics. He traveled to La Crosse, Wis., this weekend, watching his older brother, Logan, reach the NCAA Division III finals for Wartburg. He received a reminder of what is at stake later this week.
“Some of these guys have their dreams taken away from them with a loss,” Thomsen said. “I see that and the pain from these guys, so it motivates me to do my best.”
Thomsen’s best will be the biggest gauge of success when he returns from St. Louis. He isn’t concerned with the bracket or pinning satisfaction to one specific finish with the exception of a title.
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“I want to know that I poured all my heart into it,” Thomsen said. “I want to know that I gave myself the best opportunity to win every match I wrestle.
“I try to keep it simple and get the most out of me. The main goal is an NCAA championship.”
UNI matched the number of qualifiers it had in 2014. The Panthers were 15th with three All-Americans that year. Two-time All-American Dylan Peters (125), Josh Alber (133), 165-pounder Bryce Steiert, Taylor Lujan at 174, Drew Foster (184) and 197-pounder Jacob Holschlag will compete. The most impressive aspect is six are redshirt freshmen or sophomores. Peters is the lone senior.
“(The future) is built on the backs of these guys,” said Schwab, noting that five qualifiers are former Iowa preps. “That’s exciting for us. I’m looking forward to it.”
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