By Mo Nuwwarah, Opinion Editor
The Mavericks captured their third straight National Wrestling Coaches Association/Cliff Keen National Duals title on Jan. 9 in Cedar Falls, Iowa, overcoming fierce challenges from hungry rivals along the way.
Senior 141-pounder Mario Morgan, senior 174-pounder Ryan Pankoke and sophomore 157-pounder George Ivanov led the way for UNO, each going a perfect 4-0 in the two-day dual-style tournament.
“This gets our season rolling as a team,” said Morgan, who has a 15-4 record this year. “We had a couple young guys step into the line-up for the first time and have good, strong performances.”
Senior 184-pounder Aaron Denson, junior 149 -pounder Esai Dominguez and sophomore 197-pounder Matt Baker each went 3-1. Denson, who is 16-5 this season, called the meet “the most exciting national duals” he’s ever participated in.
The top -seeded Mavericks opened with a 33-13 victory over unseeded Minnesota State Moorhead. A few hours later, unseeded Upper Iowa opened up a 9-0 lead on UNO. The Mavericks recovered by winning six of the final eight matches, highlighted by Baker’s 5-4 upset over sixth-ranked Carl Broghammer and Dominguez’s pin of Blake Hilmer. UNO won 21-15.
“We came out and just took care of business,” Morgan said.
Day two proved to be significantly tougher, as the Mavericks faced fifth-seeded Newberry in the semifinals.
With the teams knotted at 13 points, Denson facedoff against Bryant Blanton, the top-ranked 184-pounder in the nation. A takedown in the last 10 seconds gave Blanton a 3-1 win.
“It was kind of disappointing,” Denson said. “I’m looking forward to nationals and hopefully getting another chance at beating him.”
After Baker won a 5-1 decision over John Reed, the stage was set for a winner-take-all showdown between UNO’s Taylor Escamilla and Jake Elkins. Escamilla earned an escape point in sudden-death overtime, advancing the Mavericks to the finals against thirdseeded Augustana.
After Cody Tyler and Sim Bribieseca dropped decisions, Morgan got the Mavericks on the board, winning a 4-2 decision over Jay Sherer, who beat Morgan in overtime to win last year’s national championship. Morgan said he expects to face Sherer twice more before the season ends.
Nate Herda then earned a key win for Augustana, as he handed Dominguez his second loss of the season with a 7-3 decision. Denson and Pankoke delivered major decision victories to give UNO a 14-12 lead. Baker narrowly missed another upset, losing 3-2 to secondranked Tyler Copsey.
Once again, the Mavericks needed a big win from their heavyweight to secure the dual, and once again Escamilla delivered a clutch performance. He outwrestled Lance Peters, winning 3-1, and giving UNO a 17-15 victory and its fifth national duals title in the past seven seasons.
UNO took home the past two titles with dominant performances, but this one was different because it took a team effort, Denney said.
“They showed grit and they ground it out,” he said. “Everybody contributed. We have some real leaders on our team.”
The team’s character was crucial in bringing home the championship, Denson said.
“All those teams were pretty evenly matched,” he said. “If we didn’t have the character that we did, I don’t think we would have won.”