Northern Iowa wrestling coach Doug Schwab previews the 2019-20 season at the team's media day in Cedar Falls. Cody Goodwin, firstname.lastname@example.org
CEDAR FALLS, Ia. — There are some new additions to the Northern Iowa wrestling room.
Some are obvious. New mats, after the program publicly fund-raised more than $65,000 this summer. New blood, too, as six freshmen joined the program as part of its 2019 recruiting class.
Some might be harder to see. There’s a confidence in the air that maybe wasn’t there last year. There’s a belief in the minds of the Panther wrestlers, young and old, that’s finally taking hold as head coach Doug Schwab enters his 10th season in charge.
Which brings us to the purple boards hanging on the west end of the room. They honor the program’s NCAA champions. A new name was added this offseason — Drew Foster, the 2019 national champion at 184 pounds.
“I still remember in the tunnel (after Foster beat Cornell’s Gabe Dean 6-4 in the finals), all the guys crowding around him and hugging him,” Schwab said Monday during the team’s media day. “You could see it in their eyes. There was a difference.
“Not that they think it's going to be easy or handed to them, but they believe now that you can win a national title at UNI.”
Last season was a banner year for the Panthers. They finished second during the Big 12’s regular season and third at the conference tournament. They took six guys to the NCAA Championships and scored 40.5 points, good for 13th in the team race, their highest finish ever under Schwab. Two wrestlers became All-Americans: Foster and Bryce Steiert, who took eighth at 165.
As such, Northern Iowa enters the 2019-20 campaign with higher expectations. The Panthers begin the year ranked No. 12 in Trackwrestling’s team rankings, and seven individuals are ranked at their weight, including five in the top 12.
“Personally, I don’t think we’re getting a lot of respect as a team, with the group of guys that we have,” Schwab said, “but the great part about that is that we get to go out and prove it.”
Foster, of course, is not returning. He is still around, forging ahead with a freestyle career as part of the post-graduate Panther Wrestling Club. But his national title has tremendously impacted the program.
► THROWBACK: UNI's Drew Foster wins 2019 NCAA title
For one, it showed the current group of Panther wrestlers that it is possible.
Before Foster, the last Panther wrestler to win an NCAA title was Tony Davis, who won at 149 pounds in 2000. What’s more, Schwab has coached 11 All-Americans since taking over as the Panthers’ head coach, but before Foster, none finished better than third (Joe Colon, 2014).
So to see Foster win it a year ago — he entered as the 6-seed and outscored his opponents 36-11 en route to first, defeating the Nos. 3 and 5 seeds along the way — made the rest of the team believe. Like, truly believe. Many said as much Monday.
“You always believe it, you know?” said senior Taylor Lujan, a three-time NCAA qualifier who will wrestle at 184 pounds this season. “But then you see it happen, and it’s a guy that you rub shoulders with in the room every day; it’s like, ‘I can do that.’ A little more confidence.”
Northern Iowa's Taylor Lujan talks about the 2019-20 wrestling season and the process of moving up to 184 pounds. Cody Goodwin, email@example.com
► 2019-20 SCHEDULE: Check out when the Panthers compete here
Foster’s accomplishment led Northern Iowa to its best NCAA team finish since the 2003 team took 11th under Brad Penrith. These Panthers have the ability to be even better, perhaps even finish in the top 10, something that hasn’t been done since they took 10th under Don Briggs in 1992.
The four returning qualifiers — Steiert, Lujan, Jay Schwarm (125) and Max Thomsen (149), a 2017 All-American — will anchor a lineup that will feature both experience and youth. Jacob Holschlag, an All-American at 197 pounds in 2018, is back, too, after missing last year with an injury. Same with heavyweight Carter Isley, who’s currently ranked No. 24 by Track.
Some new faces will also appear in the lineup. New Hampton graduate Michael Blockhus made waves as a true freshman last year by taking fourth at the Midlands Championships, and figures to lead the race at 141. Roster battles are taking place at both 157 (Derek Holschlag, Paden Moore, Keaton Geerts) and 165 (between Pat Schoenfelder, Isaiah Patton and Austin Yant).
Other redshirt freshmen are pushing for starting spots, too. Kyle Biscoglia, a three-time state champ for Waukee, will push Schwarm at 125 pounds. Drew Bennett, another state champ from Fort Dodge, will push returning starter Jack Skudlarczyk at 133. While Jacob Holschlag recovers from another small injury, redshirt freshman Noah Glaser might see time at 197.
“We all want to be national champs and All-Americans,” said Schwarm, a two-time NCAA qualifier. “But having that visual makes it easier. We’ve seen that we can do it. Drew was the perfect guy to do it. He didn’t win a state title. He showed how much development takes place at this program. That may not happen at a lot of other programs around the country.”
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The other thing Foster’s accomplishment did was ensure that Northern Iowa can position itself to maintain this success into the future.
The Panthers have become Iowa’s most popular destination for in-state prep wrestlers. Currently, there are 20 Iowa natives on the roster. Its 2020 recruiting class features both Lisbon’s Cael Happel and West Sioux’s Adam Allard, both three-time state champions who are attempting to become the 28th and 29th four-timers in state history.
Additionally, Foster’s title — broadcasted live nationally on ESPN — put the Northern Iowa brand in front of millions of eyes. The 10 NCAA champion wrestlers from last year’s national tournament hailed from seven different teams. Schwab says he uses that fact on the recruiting trail.
It’s helped, as the Panthers’ 2020 class currently features three recruits ranked in the top-100 nationally by Flowrestling — Happel (No. 73 overall), Ohio prep Nevan Snodgrass (No. 50) and Florida native Ethan Basile (No. 87).
“It opens up a lot more doors,” Schwab said. “Every kid that we talk to, they want to be a national champion. You hear Drew’s story, how he was never a state champion and how he had a losing record as a freshman, and there’s progression happening. Guys see that.”
Max Thomsen talks about the rise of Northern Iowa's wrestling program ahead of the 2019-20 season. Cody Goodwin, firstname.lastname@example.org
The current group of freshmen, both true and redshirts, agreed. They either watched Foster win it during their first season with the program, or come into the program knowing it’s possible. It’s motivated them to take the program even higher.
“One of our goals was to get Doug Schwab a national champion,” said Blockhus, a three-time Iowa state champ. “Now, our ultimate goal is to see how many we can get him. Just keep building.
“People will come in and see our belief in the program, and hopefully we can keep adding national champions.”
Schwab added that he believes it won’t take another 19 years before another name is added to the purple boards in the wrestling room. He sees it in the way his guys walk and talk and work. They’re motivated in ways they previously weren’t.
He hopes the 2019-20 season is just the start of the program’s next great chapter.
“Drew definitely raised the level of the program,” Schwab said. “It has to continue to rise. There will be no drop-off. We’ve got guys in that room that are ready to load that chamber back up and fire back out.
“It took 19 years since the last one. It will not take 19 years again.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
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