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CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa wrestling coach Doug Schwab believes this could be the best team of his tenure with the Panthers.
Bluntly, he said after eight years it needs to be the case.
'You get to certain points, this is my eighth year, and we should be at this point as a team,' Schwab said Wednesday during UNI's annual media day at the West Gym. 'We should be having the best team that I've had. We should be at that point.'
UNI has the potential for a big year, returning All-Americans Max Thomsen and Drew Foster and all but one starter from a year ago, for its inaugural season in the Big 12 Conference. The Panthers debuted at 13th in the USA Today/NWCA Coaches Poll.
UNI was 11-3 last season, capturing a conference dual title with an 8-0 mark in its final season in the Mid-American Conference, and placed 18th at the NCAA Championships in March. The Panthers have taken ownership, pushing each other to improve.
'I really like where we're at as a team,' Schwab said. 'I like the growth that has happened this spring and summer. I like how the guys have taken it over and making it theirs. It's not a coach having to whip them to do it. Actually, we took the reins off a lot. Guys are getting better.'
They will need to be better, joining the storied Big 12 Conference. The Panthers will compete at perennial power Oklahoma State, upstart South Dakota State and host Iowa State. Schwab said he's excited for the opportunity and to have an in-state conference rival. Other than that it is business as usual.
'I don't look at it any different,' Schwab said. 'We still prepare the same. Now we have Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, West Virginia and all those other teams in our conference, which is good for us, because we want to be battled-tested and ready when we head to the national tournament. I know we will be.'
Thomsen and Foster spearhead a group of returners that provides a solid nucleus for this season's team that graduated two-time All-American Dylan Peters. Taylor Lujan (174), 197-pounder Jacob Holschlag and Josh Alber, who is bumping up from 133 to 141, give UNI five with national tournament experience. Two-time NCAA qualifier Bryce Steiert (165) will redshirt this season.
'We have a lot of guys returning,' Lujan said. 'I think we're real confident. We know we're good. We proved it last year.
'We know we can only get better.'
UNI has seemed to be building for a chance to crack the top 10. The Panthers have placed 15th twice under Schwab. Thomsen and Lujan said a top-10 finish is realistic this season.
'We're going to make a lot of noise,' Thomsen said. 'I'm not going to predict where we're going to end up but I know we're going to shock a lot of people.'
Thomsen placed fifth at the NCAA Championships last season, posting a 31-7 record. Foster finished 26-6, placing seventh in the 184-pound bracket at the national tournament. Both are leaders and have been invited to compete in the NWCA All-Star Dual Classic on Sunday at Princeton University.
'You saw Max at the beginning of last year and the end of last year and how much he improved,' Schwab said. 'You saw Foster and how much he improved. They just have a different starting point now. If we can improve that much then they can be one of the best guys in the country.'
Schwab said he wants to see Thomsen vary his offense instead of hitting the same moves each time. Thomsen has worked on setting up better angles, increasing hand-fighting and improving his foot speed to develop more versatile attacks.
Last season proved his progress and plenty of work remains.
'I think it's a sign of work in the right direction,' Thomsen said. 'There are bigger goals to be accomplished.'
Lujan was one of the more exciting wrestlers in the Panthers lineup, bringing an unorthodox and high-scoring style to the mat. He is one of four Panthers that qualified for the NCAA tournament but fell short of the podium.
He had surgery to repair a shoulder injury and was cleared a little more than a month ago. Lujan gives the Panthers a bonus-point threat each time out and has looked good since going full speed again.
'He's been hell on wheels since he got cleared,' Schwab said. 'He's been really fun to watch.'
Holschlag jumped to 197 last season after competing for the 184-pound spot that Foster won. Despite being undersized, Holschlag went 20-10 and reached the NCAA tournament. He has grown into the weight for this season.
'He's done a little more work almost than everybody every single day and that's added up,' Schwab said. 'He's ready to compete and I'm excited to see him.'
Alber is a two-time NCAA qualifier at 133, but couldn't shake the drain of dropping down to the weight class. He met with Schwab after last season and they decided he would be better suited moving up a weight.
'He's looked great in the room,' Schwab said. 'When you look at him, he's a 141-pounder. Some guys are like he's not big enough to be a 141-pounder. Go look at him. Go grab a hold of him.
'He's strong enough and big enough to be a 141-pounder. He feels good.'
The Panthers have big expectations for freshman heavyweight Carter Isley. He was 23-7 during his redshirt season, winning his final eight matches. He had 10 falls and 14 bonus-point victories.
'I think (Isley) is one of the best heavyweights in the country,' Schwab said. 'I really believe that. Athletic, big, strong, hits great attacks.'
Sophomore Isaiah Patton is a favorite to replace Steiert at 165. Jay Schwarm, who was a spot starter last year when Peters was injured, is the front-runner to step in at 125.
Rudy Yates and Jack Wagner, a transfer from Iowa, were mentioned as top 133-pounders.
Some of the early lineup questions will get answered this weekend when the Panthers compete at Iowa State's Harold Nichols Open.
'I think it's just time to wrestle somebody in a different singlet,' Schwab said. 'We've been beating up on each other for a while.'
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