By Mo Nuwwarah, Opinion Editor
The UNO Wrestling team won the battle but may have lost the war, capturing a third consecutive national championship just hours before learning the program is poised to be permanently cut.
Head Coach Mike Denney and Associate Head Coach Ron Higdon said it was a war they didn’t even know they were fighting, despite a statement from the athletic department saying the planning process started 12 months ago.
“We never heard anything,” Denney said. “I never expected this.”
Late Saturday night, the Omaha World-Herald broke the story that UNO was on the verge of joining the Summit League, a 10-team Division I conference. The proposed move, which must be approved by the NU Board of Regents, would involve dropping football and wrestling, sports not sanctioned by the Summit League.
A few hours before he heard the news, Denney celebrated a joyous end to the season. UNO finished with 102.5 points to capture its sixth title in eight years, while second-place St. Cloud State had 90.5 and third-place Augustana had 81.5.
Additionally, Maverick seniors Mario Morgan (141 pounds), Ryan Pankoke (174 pounds) and Aaron Denson (184 pounds) ended their careers with individual championships. Four other Mavs earned All-American honors by finishing in the top eight in their weight classes. Junior Esai Dominguez placed seventh at 149 pounds, sophomore George Ivanov came in third at 157 pounds, sophomore Matt Baker got eighth at 197 pounds and junior Taylor Escamilla finished sixth at 285 pounds.
“This was a really special time and a special group,” Denney said. “We’re so proud of our team and our whole organization.”
Shortly after the team gathered to celebrate their triumph, Denney noticed a missed call from UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts. He called Alberts back.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Congratulations,’ and in the two years I’ve been here, he’s never done that, so I knew something was up,” Denney said.
Alberts informed Denney his program was on the chopping block. Denney reconvened his team and told them the grim news. He described it as “one of the toughest things he’s ever had to do.”
“They were just shocked,” he said referring to his wrestlers. “I mean, we just won the championship. Couldn’t there have been a better time?”
*Enticed but find yourself wanting more? Make sure to pick up a copy of the Gateway on Tuesday, March 15, to read the rest of this story!
Video from the event:
All footage courtesy Patrick Cooley/The Gateway