Small College Sports

D-III wrestlers and coaches try to process another canceled NCAA Championships

'It was devastating to hear for our guys'

Wartburg head wrestling coach Eric Keller. (The Gazette)
Wartburg head wrestling coach Eric Keller. (The Gazette)

Coe Coach John Oostendorp was finishing practice when he received a text from one of his wrestlers.

Cornell Coach Brent Hamm opened the email from Athletics Director Seth Wing.

Wartburg’s second-ranked 174-pound Kyle Briggs answered a phone call from his dad right before a flood of messages. His coach, Eric Keller, drove around Waverly, trying to process the disappointment.

All of them were informed Wednesday that the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships were canceled for a second straight year. The NCAA announced that its D-III Administrative Committee, acting on behalf of the D-III Management and Presidents Council, approved the recommendation from the D-III Championships Committee to cancel all 2021 winter championships.

“It was devastating to hear for our guys,” Oostendorp said. “They put a lot of time and effort into this. It’s very important to them. To see them not get to compete in the postseason, it’s pretty hard to watch.”

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out all winter championships in each division. This year, the NCAA cited low participation that fell short of previously determined thresholds as the reason for cancellation, impacting basketball, swimming and diving, indoor track and field, ice hockey and wrestling.

According to the NCAA release, wrestling had the highest participation rate with 61.8 percent of its 109 programs committing to competition that would qualify them for the postseason. The tournament was supposed to take place March 12-13 in La Crosse, Wis.

“I felt we made enough progress,” Keller said. “These guys have done everything that’s been asked, as far as stipulations, regulations and adjustments. We’ve done everything, so I thought we were on track to be able to do this. I feel like it’s such a step backward to cancel it.”

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The decision was made a month before instead of on the eve of the event. Briggs was the second seed for last year’s NCAA Championships. He was expected to contend for a national title this year, too.

“Last year, it was more emotional to me,” said Briggs, who placed third for All-America honors in 2019. “Now, it’s less emotional. The only emotion I’m really feeling is a bit anger at the inconvenience. Mostly, I feel like this stuff is getting old.”

Instead of bringing an end of the season, wrestlers still have a couple weeks to compete. It will be hard to match the daily intensity without a postseason to peak for, but they will make the most of the opportunities.

“The next two weeks are still important to us,” Briggs said. “It will be for years to come.

“We’re still dialed in. I really don’t know what to expect.”

Coe’s Brock Henderson has had each of his last three seasons end prematurely. An elbow injury sidelined him prematurely two years ago. He qualified for the NCAA Championships last season and is currently ranked fifth. Henderson said he was “pretty disappointed and hurt” by the recent news.

Cornell’s postseason was settled before its regular season even started. The Rams’ first dual is Saturday at home against Westminster (Mo.).

“It’s tough, especially for some of these seniors,” Hamm said. “They don’t get another shot of wrestling at the NCAA tournament. I can’t imagine being in their shoes.”

Hamm recalled finishing his competitive career at the national tournament for Cornell. The six seniors on his roster won’t likely have that opportunity, but it doesn’t change the fact the wrestlers have grown and improved on and off the mat.

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“I think as a culture of sports we’re so geared around winning and you validate your hard work by your results,” Hamm said. “Results validate ‘OK, I did work hard. I am getting better.’ When something like this happens, you don’t have that validation but it doesn’t discredit anything that you’ve done, work you’ve put in or sacrifices you’ve made. It doesn’t change how committed or disciplined you were.

“I think that’s what you have to keep in perspective. You’re not a worse wrestler for not getting the opportunity. It sucks because you don’t have a shot to experience the national tournament itself, but it doesn’t mean you weren’t worth it or doing all that wasn’t worth it.”

Coaches tried to focus on the positive Thursday, emphasizing the life lessons learned from the situation. They conveyed “big picture” messages to their wrestlers and the need to respond with strength.

“Things in life are going to happen,” Keller said. “At times, you’re going to have things happen that aren’t fair, things you can’t explain and tragedies. How you respond and overcome adversity and what that looks like is going to matter.”

NCAA Division I and Division II are still slated to have their championships, making D-III the only division without a traditional conclusion to the season. That adds to the sting.

“I really hope D-II and D-I get to (wrestle a national tournament) and they should,” Keller said. “It does make it harder. How do you explain that part? How do you explain that we can’t participate but they can? That is a hard thing to explain. You can go down a rabbit hole of what-ifs.”

Some support surfaced for a traditional tournament to cap the season. Much of it will depend on what administrators will allow and restrictions that remain in place. Coe still is set to host Luther and Nebraska Wesleyan on Saturday with a trip to Dubuque for the final double-dual.

“We still have duals ahead,” Oostendorp said. “We’re going to attack what’s ahead of us, but we’re a program where we definitely focus on the postseason and national tournament. We have national goals and aspirations. It hurts quite a bit for the guys.”

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

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