CLEVELAND, Ohio — Sometime during the 2016-17 wrestling season, Northern Iowa’s Drew Foster began wearing a Jeff Gordon t-shirt over his singlet during warm-ups.
Gordon was the favorite NASCAR driver of Drew’s father, Don.
Fans, especially opposing fans, loved it.
“I was just rocking some Jeff Gordon. I think we were at Ohio and I was wearing it and the student section was chanting at me, ‘Dale Earnhardt is better,’” Foster recalls with a laugh. “I just liked it. It was cool. I just wore it out there and I like to be different, get noticed in that way.”
Like the man it idolized on the front, that shirt has been retired.
“You should expect something (new) this year,” said Foster. “I don’t want to give that up right now, but you will see something.”
The Burlington native who wrestled at Mediapolis emerged last season with a 26-6 record and a seventh-place finish in St. Louis at nationals that was good for All-America honors.
A year earlier as a freshman, Foster went 15-18.
A little more than six months after his All-American season, Foster was invited to the NWCA All-Star Classic, a preseason event in New Jersey that features some of the top contenders from around the country.
“People probably know who I am right now maybe more than last year,” Foster said. “I have maybe a little bit bigger target on my back. But I’m ready for that.
“I’ve always went out there expecting to see everyone’s best. It’s the national tournament now so you should expect that.”
Foster lost that NWCA match to Pete Renda of North Carolina State, 5-2, but for Panther head coach Doug Schwab, the experience was important and results in November aren’t nearly as important as results in March.
“He is probably not a guy who is going to be razor sharp in November,” Schwab said. “You don’t have to be. He is a guy who builds into it a little bit.
“I think he has wrestled fairly good the second half of the year. He took some losses early, but he’s gotten better.”
The results certainly show Foster (25-4) has been better the last two months. He entered the NCAA Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland having won 11 straight, including a Big 12 championship two weeks ago in Tulsa, Okla., and he is 15-1 since the start of the new year.
His only loss since the Jan. 1 was to defending national champion Bo Nickal (10-2) in the Southern Scuffle finals.
“Where you are at in November should not be where you are at in March,” said Foster, who turned 22 on Tuesday. “Throughout the year I’ve been working on things, working on my shape. Hopefully, I’m wrestling the best I have all year.”
Foster opened Thursday against Arizona State’s Kordell Norfleet, an opponent he defeated on Jan. 13, 9-1.
Panther teammate Taylor Lujan knows how Foster operates on the mat.
“He is just so slick,” said Lujan, a frequent partner in the practice room for Foster. “You will shoot, come back up and he is on your legs. You break away, and he is in on your legs, again. He is constantly in on your legs and it can frustrate you. I’m pretty good there, but it frustrates you.
“And, he strikes quick and fast. He knows his spots, knows where he wants to score and always scores from there.”
Foster says staying aggressive is the only way he will have success in Cleveland this week.
The future sixth-grade teacher said in the matches where he’s blown people out of the water, he’s gotten to his offense early. In matches he’s lost or narrowly won, he’s waited too long.
“When I’m the attacker, I’m the aggressor ... if I stay on guys and keep the pressure on, lots of points will be coming,” Foster said.