DUBUQUE — Brock Rathbun is enjoying wrestling again.
The thrill waned a year ago, trying to meet the sport’s demands at the NCAA Division I level. He opted for a change and became rejuvenated after a visit to Wartburg and Knights head coach Eric Keller.
“The first time I met Coach Keller I thought I am coming here, for sure,” said Rathbun, who transferred after an 11-7 redshirt season at Iowa. “He makes everything exciting and fun. It doesn’t seem like a job to come out and wrestle.”
Rathbun has been a welcome addition to top-ranked Wartburg’s lineup, winning one of eight individual titles at the NCAA Division III Lower Midwest Regional tournament Sunday at Five Flags Center. The Knights advanced nine to the national tournament March 9-10 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Rathbun (21-5) has ascended the rankings and is third nationally. He added a regional title to his resume, beating Augustana's (Ill.) Brendan Gould, 10-4, for the 133-pound title.
“It feels great,” Rathbun said. “It’s what we’ve been working for the whole year for the whole team.
“Just coming out here and competing is fun. I love it.”
Coaching and competing are one thing, but Rathbun noted the camaraderie was another attraction. He said the Knights share a strong bond, which assisted him fitting in with the team.
“The guys are awesome,” Rathbun said. “The guys get along so well. That’s what it’s about.”
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Keller praised Rathbun for his coachable attitude and willingness to learn. Both have been important to his improvement.
“The guy loves to wrestle and honestly he’s kind of a sponge,” Keller said. “Anything you show the guy, anything you work on, he just keeps getting better and better.
“I’m excited about that guy.”
Keller said the championship match was a good example of Rathbun’s ability to adjust. He trailed 4-0 in the second after getting turned briefly. He stormed back with 10 straight points, putting Gould on his back as well.
“That finals match showed a lot,” Keller said. “He was in a tough spot that he hadn’t been in and found a way to fight out of it and get the job done.”
The season started a little slow at 141 pounds, but Rathbun dropped down to a more natural weight. During the descent, Rathbun began to have more success, beating Cornell’s then-No. 1 Josh Martin, who placed third and qualified at the bigger division.
Rathbun said he is more confident and feels better at 133. Keller said they were patient since he had spent some time away from competition.
“Much better fit for him,” Keller said. “That is the weight he should have been at.”
The current notion of fun rests on the preparation to win a national title. He has an all-or-nothing mentality to the next two weeks.
“I’ll be happy when I win it,” Rathbun said. “I won’t be happy with anything less. I have full confidence in myself that I can win it.”
Wartburg teammate Logan Thomsen, also a former Hawkeye, was a national finalist a year ago. Thomsen returned for a chance to complete his title quest, beating Coe All-American Cole Erickson, 8-0, for the 157 crown.
Thomsen (29-1) has some unfinished business to tend to at the NCAA tournament.
“Last year, I was pretty torqued off I fell a point short in that final match,” Thomsen said. “One thing I’ve got to do, even on those best guys, I need to go out there and score as many points as possible. That way there is nothing close. No question about it.”
The Knights were perfect in the final round. Brennen Doebel (125), Cross Cannone (149), 165-pounder Mike Ross, Eric Devos at 174, Tyler Lutes (184) and Kyle Fank at 197 all won titles for Wartburg. Heavyweight Lance Evans placed third and was the final Knights qualifier.
Wartburg won the team race with 181 1/2 points, topping runner-up Loras by 51 1/2. Coe was third with 97 and Cornell was sixth with 65 1/2.
“These guys are motivated,” Keller said. “They know going into this thing is to get to the national tournament, but the ultimate goal is to wrestle as good as you can wrestle. I felt some guys did that. Not all of them, that’s for sure, but some guys did.”
Coe and Cornell each advanced three to the NCAA tournament. In addition to Erickson, who was fifth at the 2017 NCAA tournament, Jake Voss (174) and 197-pounder Andrew Holladay qualified for the Kohawks.
Voss reached the finals, falling to top-ranked and defending national champion Devos, 6-2.
"I feel really good,” Voss said. “There’s stuff I can improve. I have two weeks to do that. I’m happy to be going.”
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The Kohawk junior is ranked fifth. He failed to reach last year’s NCAA tournament after being favored to grab one of the three berths. The missed opportunity powered him through the offseason.
“It’s eaten at me every day,” Voss said. “I could feel what it was like, sitting in the stands and watching. It drove me. It was my motivation.”
Cornell had a pair of finalists, joining Martin at the national tournament. Ben Hewson (165) and heavyweight Tyler Ortmann added runner-up finishes.
Ortmann lost to Loras’ ninth-ranked Quin Gilliam, 3-1, in sudden victory of the finals. He already had secured the national tournament berth.
He has been focused on this for an entire year, praising his coaches for helping him improve during the season and his family for their positive support.
“I’m pretty happy with the way the tournament turned out for me,” Ortmann said. “I didn’t get the place that I wanted but I’m still excited because I qualified for nationals.
“I’m pretty excited for what the next two weeks have in store.”
Ortmann reached the final with an impressive 5-2 victory over Wartburg’s top-ranked Evans. It was Evans’ only loss this season. Ortmann scored a couple late takedowns to close his first triumph over Evans.
“It was really big, because every time I’ve wrestled him I’ve gotten pinned in the first or the beginning of the second,” Ortmann said. “It was always frustrating because I know I’m a better wrestler than that. To come out, take him all three rounds and come out on top was really big for me. It definitely boosted the confidence.”
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