NCAA WRESTLING

Willie Miklus caps emotional NCAA wrestling tournament with All-American finish

Iowa State 197-pounder had 2 fan bases rooting for him

Willie Miklus of Iowa State goes for a takedown on Josh Hokit of Fresno State in the fifth-place match at the NCAA Wrestling Championships on Saturday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Miklus lost, 7-2, in the first tiebreaker, settling for sixth place and All-American status. (G. Wyatt Schultz/The Predicament)
Willie Miklus of Iowa State goes for a takedown on Josh Hokit of Fresno State in the fifth-place match at the NCAA Wrestling Championships on Saturday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Miklus lost, 7-2, in the first tiebreaker, settling for sixth place and All-American status. (G. Wyatt Schultz/The Predicament)

PITTSBURGH — Iowa State’s Willie Miklus stood in the tunnel flanked by Cyclones Coach Kevin Dresser and assistant Brent Metcalf.

He turned and hugged Dresser before rotating to embrace Metcalf, similar to the one at the end of his victory that secured a fourth All-American finish.

The sixth-year senior took a few moments for himself, taking a walk down a hallway of PPG Paints Arena. He had just closed an emotional tournament, a tough two weeks, and a long career that ended with a sixth-place finish at 197 pounds Saturday at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

Miklus was a three-time All-American for Missouri, but transferred to Iowa State for his final season to be closer to his father, Garry, who battled ALS for almost three years until his death right before the postseason.

After his 28-second pin over Stanford’s Nathan Traxler on Friday night to secure a top-eight finish, Miklus pointed to the sky, hugged Metcalf on the mat and then hugged family in the crowd.

“It was a big deal to me,” Miklus said. “I wanted to win a national title and when that wasn’t there any more you have to come back and be an All-American. (Friday) was probably one of the hardest days that I had in my career of just gritting my teeth and going after it, because one false move, one mistake and you’re done for the day (and) your season’s done, so it meant a lot. It was really special.”

Miklus had plenty of support as he rattled off four straight consolation wins to reach the top six after a tough second-round loss. His mom and brothers were in attendance and the Iowa State and Missouri crowds were pulling for him. Plus, he was surrounded by his teammates.

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“They are family, too,” Miklus said. “The Missouri guys, they’re family. I had two fan bases here. Who else can say that?”

Wrestling has been a big part of life for the former Southeast Polk two-time state champion. At times, it was an escape from real life. Those moments were temporary.

“Somebody explained it to me when my dad got sick, it’s like there’s somebody standing there, knocking at your door 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Miklus said. “You can tune it out a little bit and then it always comes back. That knocking comes back.

“Wrestling was a relief some days and some days it wasn’t. It depended on the day sometimes.”

His performance was indicative of the perseverance and toughness he demonstrated during his father’s battle.

“He’s had some peaks and valleys, obviously, this year, especially the last two weeks,” Iowa State Coach Kevin Dresser said. “There were times where I was thinking, ‘Man, he’s not going to be able to do this,’ and then there were times I thought ‘Wow, he’s doing this.’”

The Cyclones had a young team and Miklus immediately added veteran leadership. He offered help when asked and just tried to be a good teammate and friend. Dresser said Miklus kept his teammates loose and relaxed, despite the personal battle outside of the room, helping the eight national qualifiers that return next year.

“Being light and having fun is really critical at the end of the year and he’s really good at keeping things light,” Dresser said. “He’s just such a fun guy and upbeat guy all the time that I think some of the young guys went ‘Wow, we don’t have to walk around and think this is harder than it really is.’”

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Iowa State finished 16th with 32 points and two All-Americans. Jarrett Degen, the only Cyclone qualifier last season, joined Miklus on the awards stand, placing seventh with an 11-9 victory over Iowa’s Pat Lugo.

The Cyclones made a drastic improvement from tied for 45th with three points.

“I was happy for my teammates,” Miklus said. “Degen, I know he was a round-of-12 guy last year and it eats at you. It ate at him all year and getting over that hump, being an All-American getting seventh, that’s great.

“Being back in Ames was amazing. I love Ames. I love Iowa State. I couldn’t ask for a better place to come to.”

Two-sport success

Josh Hokit had a memorable year as a two-sport athlete at Fresno State. The junior 197-pounder earned All-American honors, becoming the Bulldogs’ first in 16 years and first since the school reinstated the cut program in 2016 under former Iowa national champion Troy Steiner.

Hokit also serves as a running back for the football team, playing in Fresno State’s 31-20 Las Vegas Bowl victory over Arizona State on Dec. 15. Hokit was fourth on the team with 266 rushing yards and one TD last season. He also added eight catches for 56 yards.

Hokit placed fifth as the 16th seed. He went 6-2 during the three-day tournament and ended with a 27-8 mark.

Another four-peat

During Saturday’s consolation competition, top-ranked Penn State locked up its fourth straight title and eighth in the last nine seasons.

Penn State Coach Cael Sanderson, an unbeaten four-time NCAA champ and former head coach at Iowa State, has produced two four-peats during the stretch.

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The Nittany Lions had a tournament-high five finalists and seven All-Americans. Penn State had 123 1/2 points before the finals, leading runner-up Ohio State by 27 points. The Buckeyes had three finalists.

Popular in Pitt

The NCAA tournament drew more than 100,000 fans over the three-day, six-session event and averaged more than 18,000 fans per session.

According to the NCAA, the first two sessions attracted crowds of 17,949 and 17,957, respectively. Friday drew 36,113 fans, including 18,100 for the semifinals.

The placing matches were wrestled in front of 18,436 for a total of 90,455 before Saturday night’s final.

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

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