CEDAR FALLS — Taylor Lujan captured a special moment on his phone.
Occasionally, he will glance at the picture of Northern Iowa’s Drew Foster lifted into the air by Panthers assistant Randy Pugh after winning the 184-pound championship in March. The notable accomplishment ended a 19-year title drought.
Emotions resurface for the three-time national qualifier from Carrollton, Ga., including the excitement he had for his teammate and the disappointment of not achieving his own objective.
“The goal is to be a national champion,” said Lujan, a senior who is fifth in trackwrestling.com’s preseason national rankings. “You put months together and the burn hurts a little less.
“It reminds me we can do it here. It brings back old feelings.”
Foster’s run to the top of the podium provided proof of the possible in the UNI wrestling room, transforming an aspiration into a tangible feat. Now, the bar has been raised for this year’s Panthers team, which opens the season ranked 12th with three All-Americans and six wrestlers with national tournament experience.
“For me, it’s hard not to think about how last season ended, having a national champion and how I feel like we’ve used that momentum moving forward,” said Doug Schwab, who enters his 10th season as UNI head coach. “We have a great senior class that I think has raised the level of our program. We had a great senior class last year that raised the level of our program.”
Being a national champion isn’t just coach speak or a tagline. The Panthers witnessed one of their own do it. Someone they may have taken down or beaten in practice.
“I still remember in the tunnel all those guys kind of crowding around him and hugging him and you could see it in their eyes,” Schwab said. “There was a difference. Not that they think it’s going to be easy or handed to them, but we can win a national title at UNI. You can do that.
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“It will not be 19 years again. I know that. I know what I see in the room. I know the work guys are putting in. I know the belief they have in their preparation, in themselves, in their teammates and the program.”
Three-time national qualifier and 2017 All-American Max Thomsen said Foster elevated the program to a new level. UNI is more visible, becoming one of just seven NCAA Division I programs with an individual champion in 2019.
Thomsen has pictured his name being added to the list of titlists below Foster and expects more to come.
“It’s a little bit of extra motivation to see a 2019,” Thomsen said. “There was kind of a big gap in there, which you don’t want for a program. It’s time to start making that a tradition and getting a 2020 champ, a 2021 champ, 2022 champ and so on.”
UNI tied for 13th at the NCAA meet, posting a 7-5 dual mark and going 7-1 in the Big 12.
Bryce Steiert joins Lujan and Thomsen as a three-time national qualifier. He is the lone returning All-American from last season, placing eighth at 165. Lujan has reached the 174 quarterfinals each of the last two seasons, finishing one victory shy of the podium. Both are bumping up a weight class this season.
Thomsen placed fifth as a freshmen, but didn’t place as a sophomore or junior. Fellow Union Community prep Jacob Holschlag is returning from a knee injury that kept him out all of last year. He earned All-America honors in 2018, placing fifth at 197.
Jay Schwarm (125) is a two-time national qualifier and transfer Keegan Moore qualified at 184 for Oklahoma State in 2018.
“The level of the program has been raised and it has to continue to raise,” said Schwab, adding he is waiting for someone to emerge as the top wrestler at 157 and 165. “There will be no drop off.
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“We have a group of guys in there that are ready to load that chamber back up and fire back out.”
The Panthers also have an influx of young talent that could make an impact. Freshmen Drew Bennett (133) and Michael Blockhus (141) are coming off strong redshirt seasons and could contend for spots. Kyle Biscoglia had a strong campaign and could push Schwarm at 125.
“We have the deepest team that I’ve had,” Schwab said. “When you start to look at matchups a little bit, you start to look at weight classes, you start to look at battles you’re going to have within the room, it gets exciting.
“You start to see the level of ability that guys have you get excited. You start to see the things we talk about and preach, being selfless, giving back to one another, leaving the program at a better place, I see that happening with all of our guys.”
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