CEDAR FALLS — The fight was there. The execution, however, was not perfect enough.
Hoping to make a run at four-time defending Mid-American Conference champion Missouri Sunday at the McLeod Center for the conference tournament championship, Northern Iowa fell short as it dropped four of its five title matches.
Meanwhile, the Tigers roared to their fifth straight crown, going six-for-six in the finals, including two head-to-head victories over the Panthers. Missouri racked up a MAC tournament record 154.5 points, 49 more than UNI.
“You can’t ask for more than that,” Missouri head coach Brian Smith said of the perfect championship round. “Our kids wrestled pretty hard. There were some close calls, some crazy matches, which made it fun. The atmosphere was really great.”
The Tigers’ championship run began at 133 with John Erneste, and his victory was followed by wins from Jaydin Eierman at 141, Lavion Mayes at 149, Joey LaVallee at 157, Daniel Lewis at 165 and Olympic bronze medalist J’Den Cox at 197.
Cox, the tournament’s most outstanding wrestler, became just the seventh wrestler in MAC history to win four titles.
“It is a great feeling. I worked hard for it,” Cox said. “But I’ve got to work harder. I’ve got more to do.”
For UNI, head coach Doug Schwab was proud that his team qualified seven wrestlers for the NCAA Championships March 16-18 in St. Louis, which matches 2014 for the most in his tenure.
“We aren’t much for moral victories, but at least our guys went after it,” Schwab said. “Missouri is a good team. You don’t like them coming into your house and doing what they did, but I loved how our guys competed.”
UNI’s lone champion was freshman Taylor Lujan, who scored early and often en route to a 12-2 win over Northern Illnois’ Trace Engelkes at 174 pounds.
“I just tried to stay composed, nervous or excited,” Lujan said. “It feels good. But it is a little bittersweet because you want everyone else (on top of) the podium with you.”
Senior Dylan Peters was the first Panther to take the mat in his fourth MAC championship match, but he fell into an early hole against Ohio’s Shakur Laney and trailed 5-1 after two periods. A furious rally saw Peters pull within 5-4 with 26 seconds left, but Laney held on for a 7-4 victory.
The close loss was a sign of things to come as UNI dropped its next three finals by a combined five points, starting at 149 with Max Thomsen against Mayes.
Thomsen scored first but trailed 5-4 after two periods. He tied it with a quick escape to start the third and then an illegal hold call against him gave Mayes a 6-5 lead. Then with the two in mad scramble on the edge, it looked like Thomsen scored as time expired. After review, it was determined no takedown occurred.
“Mayes ... that is one of the best guys in the country and now you see Max Thomsen is one of the best guys in the country, too,” Schwab said. “That was a great match.”
The same thing happened at 165 as Missouri’s Lewis came out strong and built a lead on Bryce Steiert, only to see a last-minute rally come up short in a 7-5 loss. Then at 184, Drew Foster appeared to be in on the winning takedown in sudden victory against Jack Dechow of Old Dominion, but Dechow was able to counter and scored with seven seconds left in the overtime period for a 5-3 victory.
“I thought our losses in the finals, our guys competed,” Schwab said. “There are little things we have to clean up. Obviously, you’d like to have more odd numbers, but I don’t think there is a fan that can’t be excited about UNI wrestling.
“You see how all those young guys went out and they were battling for everything.”
Six of UNI’s seven national qualifiers are underclassmen. In addition to the champion and four runners-up, Josh Alber and Jacob Holschlag each wrestled back to finish third at 133 and 197, respectively.
“We’ve got seven guys going and we are going to get seven guys ready to score points at the national tournament,” Schwab said.
TEAM STANDINGS — 1. Missouri 154.5, 2. Northern Iowa 106.5, 3. Central Michigan 103.5, 4. Old Dominion 94, 5. Northern Illinois 92, 6. Buffalo 80.5, 7. Eastern Michigan 64, 8. Ohio 62.5, 9. Kent State 55.
CHAMPIONSHIP — Shakur Laney (Ohio) dec. Dylan Peters (UNI) 7-4.
THIRD PLACE —Brock Hudkins (NIU) won by MFF over Kyle Akins (Buffalo)
FIFTH PLACE — Barlow McGhee (MU) dec. Noah Gonser (EMU) 4-1.
CHAMPIONSHIP — John Erneste (Missouri) dec. Bryan Lantry (Buffalo) 6-2 SV.
THIRD PLACE — Josh Alber (UNI) dec. Corey Keener (CMU) 9-2.
FIFTH PLACE — Alex Madrigal (ODU) dec. Anthony Tutolo (KSU) 6-0.
CHAMPIONSHIP — Jaydin Eierman (MU) dec. Noah Forrider (Ohio) 10-1.
THIRD PLACE — Mason Smith (CMU) dec. Kyle Springer (EMU) 7-3.
FIFTH PLACE — Kevin Budock (ODU) dec. Angel Velasquez (NIU) 2-1 TB2.
CHAMPIONSHIP — Lavion Mayes (MU) dec. Max Thomsen (UNI) 6-5.
THIRD PLACE — Justin Oliver (CMU) dec. Steven Bleise (NIU) 8-0.
FIFTH PLACE — Michael Hayes (ODU) dec. Nick Barber (EMU), 9-5.
CHAMPIONSHIP — Joey Lavalee (MU) dec. Colin Heffernan (CMU) 4-3 TB2.
THIRD PLACE — Casey Sparkman (KSU) dec. Zachary Carson (EMU) 9-7 SV.
FIFTH PLACE — Larry Early (ODU) dec. Cullen Cummings (Ohio) 8-3.
CHAMPIONSHIP — Daniel Lewis (MU) dec. Bryce Steiert (UNI) 7-5.
THIRD PLACE — Shaun’Qae McMurty (NIU) dec. Seldon Wright (ODU) 14-3.
FIFTH PLACE — Isaac Bast (KSU) dec. Logan Parks (CMU) 3-2.
CHAMPIONSHIP — Taylor Lujan (UNI) dec. Trace Engelkes (NIU) 12-2.
THIRD PLACE — Christian Brucki (CMU) dec. Muhamed McBryde (Buffalo) 6-4.
FIFTH PLACE — Jacob Davis (EMU) dec. Dylan Wisman (MU) 9-3.
CHAMPIONSHIP — Jack Dechow (ODU) dec. Drew Foster (UNI) 7-5 SV.
THIRD PLACE — Jordan Ellingwood (CMU) dec. Matt Lemanowicz (MU) 4-3.
FIFTH PLACE — Bryce Gorman (NIU) dec. Shane Mast (KSU) 7-5.
CHAMPIONSHIP — J’Den Cox (MU) dec. Kevin Beazley (ODU) 8-2.
THIRD PLACE — Jacob Holschlag (UNI) dec. Shawn Scott (NIU) 6-4.
FIFTH PLACE — Austin Severn (CMU) dec. Stephen Suglio (KSU) 3-2.
CHAMPIONSHIP — Jake Gunning (Buffalo) dec. Gage Hutchison (EMU) 3-2.
THIRD PLACE —Austin Myers (MU) dec. Zack Parker (Ohio) 3-1.
FIFTH PLACE — Newton Smerchek (CMU) pinned Will Hilliard (ODU) 1:14.