TULSA, Oklahoma – One-by-one Northern Iowa wrestlers sat down in front of a microphone and answered questions.
Each of them answered each question thoughtfully and with forethought on the bigger picture.
In the back of the room, Panther head coach Doug Schwab sat and listened. There were a couple of chuckles. There were a couple of snorts.
But for the most part, Schwab listened and nodded his head.
It is 24 hours from UNI and its seven NCAA Division I national championship qualifiers taking the mat at the BOK Center in Tulsa chasing their all-American dreams.
During last week’s press conference each wrestler talked about what it would take to fulfil and reach their goals and ambitions.
“They got to take their own advice,” Schwab said afterward. “I’m going to remind them of that, too. You can be fully aware of what you need to do, but doing it sometimes it can be a little different especially when pressure and emotion get involved.”
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This is the seventh straight season Schwab has had six or more national qualifiers, and fourth time in that same span he has had seven or more.
Leading UNI’s contingent is two-time all-American Parker Keckeisen, the top seed at 184.
But five of the other qualifiers have won at least one NCAA championship match in their careers, and the sixth, Cael Happel has some of the Panthers’ best wins this winter.
A lot of the talk prior to heading to Tulsa was along the lines of Ted Lasso’s favorite lockerroom sign … ‘BELIEVE!’
“That is something I have been trying to focus on,” 149-pound junior Colin Realbuto said. “Believing in myself is something I lack sometimes and can hinder my performances. I’m trying to keep things consistent, trying to keep that belief consistent in myself.”
Realbuto, who won twice in Detroit last March, owns a win over second-seeded Sammy Sasso of Ohio State. That victory at the Collegiate duals is one of a handful of Top 20 wins in Realbuto’s resume.
“Looking back at those wins, it is not like I beat that guy, because it doesn’t really matter,” Realbuto said. “but looking back at them and saying, ‘yeah, you are that good.’ It is something you can see and now you just got to believe it.”
Kyle Biscoglia at 133, Happel at 141, Union of La Porte City’s Derek Holschlag at 157, Waverly’s Austin Yant at 165 and Waterloo East’s Tyrell Gordon round out UNI’s NCAA qualifiers.
Happel, who received an at large bid after having a disappointing Big 12 championship for the second straight season, said it is simple for him.
“Relax and get back to my roots and be true to myself,” Happel said. “Just believe in myself more, relax and make it not such a big deal. You see me in practice. I’m pretty good at wrestling, I’ve just struggled translating that over to the (competition) mat.”
For local stars Holschlag and Yant, this is their last competition as college athletes.
“It is tournament time,” Yant said. “I don’t like the (term) gamer, and I don’t think of myself that way. But I make a lot less mistakes when it is postseason. Some guys tighten up, but for me it is go create all the opportunities I can. It is the most fun time of the year. I’m looking forward to this one last big tournament.”
Yant owns four NCAA championship wins and is now a three-time NCAA qualifier.
Holschlag is making his second trip to the championships and won his opening match last year before losing his next two.
Holschlag is looking to erase a rough Big 12 tournament with a better performance this week.
“Yeah, definitely use it as fuel,” Holschlag said of his Big 12 disappointment. “Because if you use it in a negative way and keep telling yourself you went 1-2 at the Big 12s…that is just going to keep bringing you down…the best competitors use (disappointing performances) as fuel for their next competition.”
Gordon making his second tournament as an undersized heavyweight, he weighs less than 220, says he tries to focus just on the next thing in front of him.
“I don’t think that matters,” Gordon responded when asked if his previous NCAA is beneficial to him. “It is just going out there and wrestling. Try to have fun. If I am having fun those dudes are in trouble.”
Action gets underway at 11 a.m. Thursday and can be viewed on ESPNU and or online ESPN+
And for Schwab, he has one reminder for his qualifiers … listen to your words.
“Getting the guys to know themselves and then going out and getting it,” Schwab said. “It is funny. Obviously, they pick up on some of the things you say…some of the words. I think language is part of our culture. Some of the things you key on and keep hearing guys saying those things.
“The biggest thing is believing it. I enjoyed getting to listen to them, because for us we want them to be who they are. They have to be real and authentic. And they have to believe…not kind of like this is what I am supposed to say, but no this is actually what I believe and then …
“Breathing it to life. They have some big moments in front of them, but they are moments they are prepared for.”