Wartburg's Kyle Fank succeeds in starting role

Junior 197-pounder seeded second for Knights, who try for 13th NCAA team title

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Kyle Fank is the man now.

Even though he didn’t own that title, he still trained like it while sitting behind national finalists his first two years at Wartburg. Fank is ready to reap the rewards of all that work.

“It really does pay off,” Fank said. “Last year, I got in a few times. It helped to get a feel what it’s like to be the man at the weight.”

Fank is seeded second and brings a 24-match win streak into the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships at The La Crosse Center, beginning Friday at 11 a.m. The Knights are looking for their sixth NCAA team title and a D-III record 13th wrestling team national title.

The junior 197-pounder will make his national-tournament debut, winning the regional title two weeks ago in Dubuque. Fank (31-2) faces Centenary’s Etiini Udott (21-5) in the first round.

“I’m really excited,” Fank said. “My first time on the big stage. I have to take advantage of the opportunity.”

Wartburg Coach Eric Keller said Fank competed with the Knights’ national runner-up Gerard Roman. Keller said Fank only lost one match to a D-III foe last season. Fank continued to make strides and was ready to get his chance.

“Last year, he had a really good year,” Keller said. “He was right there.”

Keller pointed to Fank’s mental approach. He came into the practice room focused on being his best daily. A coach’s job is easier and results come quicker with that buy-in from a wrestler.

“He wants to learn and get better,” Keller said. “Having a kid that wants to be better, as a coach, you can work with it.”

This season’s growth stems from additional confidence. Keller said Fank has become determined to dominate matches and keep scoring points.

Wrestling has an “iron sharpens iron” mentality. Fank used to be part of the strong depth in the practice room. He is benefiting from it now, facing tougher tests in workouts than in competition.

“We have the best guys in the country, going three or four deep,” Fank said. “When you face the best in the country, it prepares you.

“The big thing is just believing in myself. I have the potential to beat anybody.”

Fank comes from a wrestling family. Older brother, Ryan, was a three-time All-American heavyweight for Wartburg. Their father, Ron, wrestled at Simpson and worked as a wrestling official. Kyle Fank recalled his first practice about the age of 6.

“I took a liking to it,” Fank said. “I found success. It’s fun.”

It leads to some good-natured debate as to who the best wrestler in the family. The response might depend on who and when you ask.

“We used to roll a lot back in the yard,” Fank said with a laugh. “On any given day, you’ll get a different answer.”

Fank had a good example to follow. He was a sophomore at Independence when he traveled to La Crosse, Wis., to watch his brother earn his first All-American finish. The older Fank helped Wartburg claim the second of four straight titles (2011-14).

Now, the younger Fank has a chance to reach the podium for the first time just like his older brother.

“For me, that’s when I decided I want to be a part of that,” Fank said about wrestling at Wartburg. “That’s what happens here.”

The Knights are poised for another team championship, qualifying all 10 wrestlers. Two-time NCAA champion Kenny Martin is top-seeded at 149. Fank, Eric DeVos (174) and unbeaten heavyweight Lance Evans are seeded second. Andrew Steiert (165), Cross Cannone at 141 and 157-pounder Logan Thomsen are all seeded third. Two more are seeded fifth.

“It’s special to have all 10 guys,” Keller said. “They’re a close group. They’ve done it for each other as much as themselves.

“I love this group. I’m excited for them to have a chance to make history.”

QUALIFIERS FROM IOWA COLLEGES

(Number of qualifiers in parentheses)

Central (5): C.J. Pestano (125), Cam Timok (133), Daniel Radcliffe (141), Ryan Vandall (165), Matt Seabold (197)

Coe (1): Cole Erickson (149)

Cornell (2): Aaron Engle (149), Mike Maksimovic (174)

Loras (4): Clint Lembeck (141), Jimmy Davis (157), Guy Patron (197), Quin Gilliam (Hwt.)

Luther (3): Tristan Zurfluh (165), Javier Reyes (174), Justin Kreiter (184)

Wartburg (10): Arnie Olea (125), Connor Campo (133), Cross Cannone (141), Kenny Martin (149), Logan Thomsen (157), Andrew Steiert (165), Eric DeVos (174), Bryan Levsen (184), Kyle Fank (197), Lance Evans (Hwt.)

TOP QUALIFYING TEAMS

10 — Wartburg; 8 — Augsburg (Minn.); 6 — Concordia-Moorhead (Minn.), Ithaca (N.Y.), Messiah (Pa.); 5 — Central, Johnson & Wales (R.I.), SUNY-Cortland, Stevens Institute of Technology (N.J.)

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

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