Small College Sports

Wartburg looks to get back on top at NWCA National Duals

Knights have reached the finals in all 16 years; Gazette-area preps contribute to success

Wartburg head wrestling coach Eric Keller. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Wartburg head wrestling coach Eric Keller. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Unprecedented and unmatched.

Wartburg’s success in national dual competition is simply mind-boggling.

The second-ranked Knights are the lone program to reach the finals in every year of the National Wrestling Coaches Association National Duals since it moved to multiple divisions in 2002. Wartburg is seeded second behind top-ranked Augsburg for the two-day dual event at Louisville, Ky., beginning Friday at 8 a.m. (Iowa time).

The Knights (6-0) will attempt to win their 12th national duals title and open against the winner between Wisconsin-Eau Claire and 20th-ranked WPI.

“Historically, we are the only team in any division that has been in the (championship dual) every single year,” Wartburg head coach Eric Keller said. “Obviously, we want to win it, but the bigger picture is you have all the best teams from across the country in one place and you’re going to get that kind of level of competition and test in January.

“It gives you an opportunity to see areas you have to key in on down the stretch.”

Wartburg had its string of seven straight NWCA duals titles snapped last year by Augsburg — the only other program to win the NCAA Division III national duals. The Knights could face No. 11 Coe (5-2) in the quarterfinals. Third-seeded Johnson & Wales might be a semifinal foe before even considering a finals rematch.

“The approach is to expect every match of every dual to be hard,” Keller said. “We train and prepare that way. You don’t overlook anybody.

“It’s not about who you wrestle. It’s about how you wrestle, controlling what we can.”

The Knights have a strong Cedar Rapids and Linn County flavor to their lineup this season. Returning NCAA champion and former Center Point-Urbana three-time state champ Brock Rathbun is top-ranked at 133 pounds. Cedar Rapids Jefferson duo Kyle Briggs (174) and 141-pounder Brenden Baker have been in the lineup.

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“We’re a little closer to one another,” Briggs said about his relationship with Baker and Rathbun. “We have a lot of history with one another, being from the same general area. We’ve wrestled since we were little kids together.”

Baker still is battling former South Tama prep Brady Fritz and Kris Rumph. Briggs has climbed to fourth in the NWCA national rankings and is one of six ranked Knights. Briggs, a sophomore, is 12-1 this season.

“The season has been pretty fun for me,” Briggs said. “The key is to keep it that way. Just try to enjoy it because if you take it too seriously your highs will be too high and lows will be too low. As long as you enjoy it, you usually do better anyway.”

Briggs was 15-3 last season wrestling at 184. He was behind national finalist Tyler Lutes last season. Keller said Briggs has put himself on the map with consistent training that began a year ago.

“He’s wrestling at a really, really high level,” Keller said. “He had a good year last year and that’s where it started. He had a vision of where he wanted to be when it was his opportunity and trained that way every single day. That’s what it takes and is hard to do. I give him a lot of credit doing that.”

Wartburg’s chances of starting another national duals title streak relies in a balanced effort. The Knights haven’t clicked on all cylinders, yet, but the hope is all 10 starters wrestle their best at the same time.

“Throughout the season, people have stepped up individually, but the team hasn’t done that as a whole,” Briggs said. “This weekend, we’re looking for everyone to contribute their best effort.”

Coe opens with Westminister (Mo.) with the winner taking on Baldwin Wallace in the second round. Luther will wrestle Wisconsin-Whitewater in the first round.

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In the NCAA Division II field, Upper Iowa is the eighth seed and will face West Liberty (W. Va.) in the first round.

Top-ranked Grand View will attempt to win its eighth straight NAIA national duals title. The Vikings face Bethany (Kan.) in the first round.

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

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