Lookahead: Can Northern Iowa wrestling continue upward momentum into next season?

Cody Goodwin
The Des Moines Register

Consider the 2018-19 season a step in the right direction for the Northern Iowa wrestling program.

A giant one, at that.

In Doug Schwab’s ninth season as the head coach, the Panthers turned in another strong season. They finished the regular season as Big 12 runner-ups, took third at the conference tournament, and tied for 13th at the 2019 NCAA Championships, their highest finish under Schwab.

Even more, two Northern Iowa wrestlers earned All-American honors, led by Drew Foster’s NCAA title at 184 pounds, the first individual title winner under Schwab and the program’s first since 2000. Bryce Steiert joined him by taking eighth at 165. Two other Panther wrestlers came up one win shy of the podium, and six total qualified for the national tournament.

Such production will undoubtedly lead to higher expectations in 2019-20, and a combination of returning talent and new faces have the Panthers looking to continue their momentum when next winter arrives.

Here’s a peek at how Northern Iowa might look next season:

Key departures

Only three wrestlers on the Panthers’ 2018-19 roster are expected to graduate, and two of them combined for 204 wins, seven NCAA tournament appearances, two All-American finishes and one national title.

That’s Josh Alber, a four-time NCAA qualifier who became the 20th UNI wrestler to win at least 100 matches (109), and Foster, the 2019 NCAA champion and two-time All-American who won 95 career matches. (The third senior: Darren Eades, a listed 133-pounder from Storm Lake.)

While losing just three wrestlers to graduation doesn’t seem like much, Alber and Foster will take plenty of experience with them. It will be hard to replicate their collective four-year production, as they were both crucial cogs in the program’s rise the last five years.


Top returners

The other four NCAA qualifiers from this year’s squad will all return.

Jay Schwarm is now a two-time NCAA qualifier at 125 pounds. Max Thomsen was an All-American at 149 in 2017, and has also made the bloodround each of the last two years. Taylor Lujan has twice made the quarterfinals at 174. Steiert has now qualified for the national tournament three times and earned All-American honors for the first time this past season.

Even more, Jack Skudlarczyk will return at 133 after taking sixth at the Big 12 Championships, just one placement shy of earning an automatic bid to the national tournament. Other primary returners include Carter Isley (285), Tyrell Gordon (197), Pat Schoenfelder and Paden Moore (both 157), and Izaak Shedenhelm, who spent time at both 197 and 285.

Northern Iowa's Max Thomsen wrestles Iowa State's Jarrett Degen at 149 during a NCAA Big 12 wrestling dual on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 at the West Gymnasium in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

► RELATED: Wrestling Mailbag — recapping NCAAs, Drew Foster, looking to 2019-20

New additions

It’s hard to call Jacob Holschlag a “new addition,” but the 2018 All-American was on the shelf all year with injury. That allowed Gordon to gain valuable experience as a true freshman. It stands to reason that Holschlag will return as the starter at 197 next season and Gordon can take his experience into a developmental redshirt year, not unlike what Steiert did during 2017-18.

Another name to likely join the starting lineup is Keegan Moore, who transferred in from Oklahoma State in the offseason. Moore went 18-10 and qualified for the NCAA Championships for the Cowboys in 2018, and should slide in nicely at 184 after Foster’s graduation.

Even more, many of this year’s redshirts will fight for lineup spots in 2019-20.

Kyle Biscoglia went 24-5 this year at 125 and finished seventh at the Midlands Championships (ahead of Schwarm). Michael Blockhus, who went 18-4 and took fourth at the Midlands, is the likely frontrunner to follow Alber as the guy at 141. Others like Drew Bennett (133), Cayd Lara (157), John McConkey and Bryce Esmoil (both 285) will all push for starting time as well.

Recruiting class

A year after bringing in an Iowa all-star recruiting class, Schwab is adding another decorated group of signees to the program.

The current five-man recruiting haul features some of the nation’s best, led by Parker Keckeisen, a two-time Wisconsin state champ and Junior freestyle All-American who’s currently ranked No. 2 nationally at 182 pounds by The Open Mat. He’s joined by Southeast Polk’s Lance Runyon, a 2019 state champ and UWW Cadet freestyle All-American who’s ranked No. 6 nationally at 152.

Behind them is Perry’s Kaleb Olejniczak, a three-time Iowa state medalist, as well as a pair of four-time state champions in Kyle Gollhofer, a Georgia prep ranked 12th nationally at 120, and Dayton Porsch, who went 145-2 in four years at Hoxie High School in Kansas.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.