St. LOUIS, Mo. — The message has always been the same from Northern Iowa wrestling coach Doug Schwab.
Over and over, Schwab tells his athletes if you don’t get what you want the first time, get the next best result ... keep building and keep climbing.
Saturday, Panther freshman Max Thomsen and sophomore Drew Foster finished the 2017 NCAA Division I championships at the Scottrade Center on the rise.
Thomsen overcome two tough losses, including a close loss in Friday night’s semifinals, to finish fifth at 149 pounds, the highest finish for a UNI freshman since Mark Schwab took fifth in 1986. Foster followed suit by winning his final match of the championships to finish seventh at 184 in a weight class that returned six All-Americans.
Those two closing performances helped UNI finish 18th with 25.5 points, the third-highest finish under Schwab behind 15th-place finishes in 2013 and 2014.
“Finishing with response and finishing with odd numbers,” Schwab said. “Max loses two tough matches and he was able to respond like that to a guy who had him beat early in the season shows the grit and toughness that he has.
“184 was probably the deepest weight if you look up and down and top to bottom, and Foster did a great job of finishing seventh there. A lot of momentum for him into the future and just to see the growth he has made from last year to this year ... you make another jump like that and you are one of the best guys in the country.”
Thomsen opened Saturday with what he considered his most disappointing performance of the season as he lost 13-5 to Micah Jordan of Ohio State.
“The tournament was going really well at the start and kind of a heartbreaking loss in the semifinals (Friday),” said Thomsen, who is just the 10th freshman All-American in UNI history. “Then I’ve got to be ready for the semifinal consolation (Saturday morning) and I didn’t put the best Max Thomsen out there and I’m always going to regret that.”
Thomsen re-found what made him one of the best freshmen in the nation regardless of weight class in the fifth-place match where he dominated Virginia Tech’s Solomon Chishko in a 10-4 victory. Chishko had beaten him 7-1 earlier in the season.
“When you flip a score around like that, you know you are doing the right things,” Thomsen said.
Foster’s story is a validation of someone who bought into the process of getting better. A year ago as a 174-pound wrestler, Foster posted a 15-18 record as a redshirt freshman.
A year of growth and tutelage under UNI assistant coach Randy Pugh paid dividends in 2017 as Foster finished 30-8 and earned a spot on the podium that featured two past champions — Myles Martin of Ohio State and Gabe Dean of Cornell.
Foster topped Indiana’s Nathan Jackson, 11-7, for seventh place.
“It is great to finish with a win. I’m happy with the finish, but personally I feel like I’m a better wrestler than seventh place. So I’m hungry for more,” Foster said.
Including Thomsen and Foster, UNI will return six of its seven national qualifiers — the most returning qualifiers for the Panthers since 2005. Josh Alber at 133, Bryce Steiert at 165, Taylor Lujan at 174 and Jacob Holschlag at 197 are the other returners.
“There is a lot to build on,” Schwab said. “I have never left this tournament satisfied one time. That is the nature of being a coach and being a competitor because you always want more for your guys.
“Certainly I’m excited for the future. How can you not be with what we have coming back? Now it is just time to keep raising levels and I saw guys do that this week.”
Steiert, a sophomore who lost in the All-America round Friday, had a message for his teammates detailing his plan to raise his level of performance.
“We’re pretty young. You need talent. You need mindset. You need hard work and then you need grit, because grit wins in the blood rounds,” Steiert said. “Just that unwavering will and unwavering decision to get what you want.
“It is in me. I have to do some soul-searching to find how deep I’m willing to go and how much I’m I willing to venture into the unknown.”