NCAA WRESTLING

Once rivals, Josh Alber and Max Thomsen lead UNI again at NCAA wrestling

Friends and teammates each win first-round match

Northern Iowa's Max Thomsen (right) works on a takedown against Jared Prince of Navy during the first round of the NCAA wrestling championships in Pittsburgh.  Thomsen won, 9-8. (G. Wyatt Schultz)
Northern Iowa's Max Thomsen (right) works on a takedown against Jared Prince of Navy during the first round of the NCAA wrestling championships in Pittsburgh. Thomsen won, 9-8. (G. Wyatt Schultz)
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PITTSBURGH — Northern Iowa’s Josh Alber and Max Thomsen knew each other well before their time as teammates.

The duo shares a mutual admiration in the Panther wrestling room, but that wasn’t always the case. Alber was a four-time state champion in Illinois, while Thomsen won four titles in Iowa. They met on the mat plenty of times growing up.

“We wrestled each other probably 10 to 15 times, growing up,” Alber said with a laugh. “I absolutely hated him. I beat him quite a bit when we were kids, but it was a rivalry and I couldn’t stand him.”

Thomsen said, “I’ve spent a ton of time with Josh. It’s actually kind of funny we were childhood rivals and he beat me every single time just because he was so mentally tough as a kid.”

Alber and Thomsen won their opening bouts at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships on Thursday at PPG Paints Arena. They sparked a five-match win streak that allowed the Panthers to finish 5-1 and tie for ninth after the first session.

They pushed aside the rivalry and became good friends at UNI. They serve as practice partners and even experience the outdoors together. Alber laughed when he said Thomsen can hook catfish better, but he has more luck with bass.

“When we came up here we became really good friends,” Thomsen said. “We’d go fishing and kayaking on the river.

“He’s just a great guy off the mat. He’s got a very strong faith.”

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Obviously, wrestling is a connector. Alber (141) is a four-time NCAA qualifier and Thomsen, a junior 149-pounder making his third national appearance, earned All-American honors with a fifth-place finish as a freshman.

“In the room, he works his tail off,” Thomsen said of Alber. “He’s always focused. He’s one of the most clutch kids I know. He’s just been a great leader for our program, in general, in his five years.”

At times the practice room can get a little heated, but that can be attributed to their competitive streaks. Apply the “iron sharpens iron” adage here.

“When it’s in the room we’re really not friends at all but outside the room we have a very similar mindset,” Alber said. “We’re there for each other and our results are pretty similar, too, so we know exactly what each other is going through.”

Alber opened with a 10-3 decision over Army’s Corey Shie. The fourth-ranked Panther suffered a first-round upset a year ago at nationals and again at the Big 12 Championships less than two weeks ago. The victory alleviated a little stress.

“It feels huge to me,” Alber said. “I feel like I can wrestle a lot more free now. Physically and emotionally, I feel like a huge weight has been lifted. I’m really excited to keep going now.”

Thomsen scored a takedown in the final 15 seconds for a 9-8 victory over Navy’s Jared Prince.

They joined Bryce Steiert (165), Taylor Lujan at 174 and 184-pounder Drew Foster with first-round wins. Foster blanked Brown’s Christian LaFragola, 10-0. Foster was seventh two years ago.

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“It’s big,” Foster said about returning to the awards stand. “I want to climb high. I want to be on the No. 1 spot. We have work to do. We have matches to win.”

Foster put the cap on a solid start for the Panthers, who are looking for their first top-10 finish since 1992. UNI’s best team finish under head coach Doug Schwab was 15th in 2013 and 2014.

“We’re like the tip of the sword for the future, the coming years,” Foster said. “We’re just trying to break through. The guys we’ve got, the work we’ve put in, it’s going to be a battle but it’s definitely something that’s attainable. Catch us in two more days and hopefully we’re still talking about this.”

Sam Stoll unseats No. 5 seed

Iowa heavyweight Sam Stoll knocked off the highest seed in the first session. Stoll, a returning All-American seeded 28th, defeated Michigan’s No. 5 Mason Parris, 8-5, in the first round.

Stoll posted a takedown, three penalty points from stall calls against Parris and a riding-time point.

“Very smart, very savvy match,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “We stayed good in our positions. He was very smart in using his experience to his advantage and that guy hadn’t felt us before.”

After Stoll’s win, Virginia Tech’s 26th-seeded 149-pounder Ryan Blees recorded the biggest upset, scoring a takedown in sudden victory for a 3-1 decision over Oklahoma State’s No. 7 Kaden Gfeller.

Strong start for state schools

Iowa, Iowa State and UNI jumped to a strong started. The three state schools combined for an 18-6 record in the first round.

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Iowa State went 4-5, but had six points after the first session, already doubling last year’s point total with just one qualifier. The Cyclones received opening major decisions from 133-pound freshman Austin Gomez and Jarrett Degen at 149.

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

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