CEDAR FALLS — Josh Alber has come a long way since his first season in the University of Northern Iowa wrestling room.
Practices included suffocating rides from All-American Joey Lazor, pins at the hands of two-time All-American Dylan Peters and rounds with All-American and U.S. World Team member Joe Colon. Those moments wore on him over time, but he learned how to balance the humbling days with the good ones.
“When you come into a room of (Division) I wrestlers it’s like a pack of wolves,” Albers said. “I was able to keep a good attitude regardless of how bad I was getting beat in the room or not having the results in competition that I wanted.”
Alber continued to work and improve, becoming a pillar in the Panthers’ lineup. The senior 141-pounder will make his fourth appearance at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, beginning Thursday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Fourth-seeded Alber (31-5) opens against Army’s No. 29 Cory Shie (27-14). As one of six UNI qualifiers, he will attempt to cap his best season with his first All-American finish, using an even-keel approach he learned during those early days in the West Gym.
“As a freshman, I didn’t get much of a break,” Alber said. “I just had to learn to stay steady and no matter how things were going in the room or competition, if I wasn’t getting what I wanted.
“I just stayed steady and I think you’re seeing that steadiness this year in my performances, my record and being able to stay in there regardless of anything. Just keep my mind sharp on what is ahead.”
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UNI Coach Doug Schwab said Alber had a choice to make. He could dig in and get better or turn the other way for temporary relief. Even if his career ends in a medal and a spot on the awards stand, Alber will benefit from his efforts.
“It’s a testament to him because the sport is important,” Schwab said. “He understands how it’s going to help him. He’s not going to regret anything when he is done. I believe in these guys as competitors and people.
“In 10, 20 or 30 years from now, I’ll believe in Josh Alber as a man. Hopefully, he’ll continue to come back and stays a part of our program because he’s been a critical piece of what we’ve tried to build.”
Schwab served as a mentor for Alber, making an immediate impression during the first recruitment visit at the family’s home. He emphasized the four-time undefeated Illinois state champ for Dakota High School was his guy at 133 (141). The message was enough to sell Alber on the Panthers.
Schwab demonstrated constant support and encouragement through thick and thin, bolstering Alber’s confidence.
“If Doug Schwab wasn’t at UNI I don’t think I’d be at UNI,” Alber said. “He’s the main factor that brought me here. I love Cedar Falls and UNI, but I’m wrestling for Doug Schwab. The belief he has in me is reciprocated in the belief I have in him.”
After his title at the Midlands Championships, Alber mentioned Schwab helped him mature off the mat as well. He witnessed how Schwab and his coaching staff, including assistant Randy Pugh, conduct their daily lives. They lead by example.
“I see it every day in here,” Alber said. “He’s just a genuine guy. It’s more seeing how he acts.
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“I don’t want to be a replica of Doug. I want to be my own man. You can’t go wrong doing the things he does and having the intensity for work, love in his relationships and he puts 100 percent into everything he does.”
Schwab said his wrestlers hear more about life than wrestling. He didn’t take responsibility for Alber’s growth, noting he was raised that way from the start.
“If I helped with that, perfect,” Schwab said. “That is what I should as coach, but I’m surely not going to take credit for him, because he has done a ton of work.”
Alber has elevated into a fifth-year leader alongside All-American and two-time Big 12 champion Drew Foster. He closed the regular season with 15 straight victories and 20 of the last 21. His resume was strong enough that it was unaffected by a third-place finish and setback in the Big 12 Championships.
“In my mind, yes, I’m winning these matches, but I’m not wrestling to my best capability,” Alber said. “A lot of the matches I’m winning I’ve given up takedowns here and there, so it’s encouraging that I’m winning without thinking I’m wrestling my best.”
Alber is focused on staying steady, preventing any situation to get too big and overwhelm him. The mindset served him well, getting to this point.
“Just keep it simple,” Alber said. “That’s what I’ve been doing the last two months. I’m not thinking about wins and losses. I’m thinking about fighting for every single position and that’s been paying off for me. I fight through every period, every score (and) at the end of the match I’ve been having more points than the other guy.”
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