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Eric Keller 031119 NCAA championships

Wartburg College wrestling coach Eric Keller kneels in his coaching corner during the 2019 Division III wrestling championships Saturday in Roanoke, Va. 

ROANOKE, Va. — There are 68 Division III wrestling programs across the country that would have traded places with Wartburg College Saturday at the NCAA Championships.

That is how many teams finished behind the Knights in the final team standings.

There was only one team Wartburg would have traded places with, and that is long-time rival Augsburg, which claimed its 13th NCAA title.

The Knights follow the philosophy of fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, who quipped, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

Wartburg’s sixth-place finish with four All-Americans by most standards would be a successful season.

But a program that has 14 national titles, a national champion 16 consecutive years, 34 total national champions, 187 All-Americans and a previous worst finish of eighth since 1992 expects more.

That is not a knock on the four individuals who earned All-American status — Brady Fritz, Cross Cannone, Kyle Briggs and Bowen Wileman — or anyone else who contributed to scoring 52 national tournament points as a qualifier or as somebody who served as a training partner for one of the All-Americans.

It’s not a knock on any other Division III program, either.

The expectation in Waverly at the beginning of the season is to lift the national championship trophy in March. No program other than Wartburg’s or Augsburg’s has won a national title since 1994.

The Knights knew they faced a challenge this season.

After winning their third consecutive title last year, Wartburg saw 82 1/2 national championship points and eight starters graduate. Furthermore, the only wrestler on this year’s squad who filled a varsity role in 2017 was Cannone, who capped his career as a three-time All-American.

Seven of Wartburg’s 10 starters were underclassmen.

But the team continued to raise the bar all season long and extended its American Rivers Conference win streak to 213 while winning its 27th consecutive conference crown. The Knights took third at the National Duals and won late-season meets over highly ranked Augsburg and Loras.

But cracks began to show starting at the Lower Midwest Regional where sophomore Michael Ross, ranked fourth nationally at 165, was injured in a match and did not qualify for nationals.

Then defending national champion Brock Rathbun had a rough day one in Roanoke with his Type-1 diabetes affecting his energy. The No. 3 seed visibly lost stamina quickly and went 0-2, getting pinned twice while leading in either the second or third period.

With Ross and Rathbun both 100 percent, it is likely Wartburg would’ve finished second at worst. Last year, Rathbun scored 23.5 team points while winning the 133-pound title, and Ross, who took eighth at 165 as a freshman, scored 6.5.

Head coach Eric Keller wasn’t looking for excuses.

“Hey, a lot of teams and individuals wrestled well this weekend,” Keller said. “Give those teams and individuals credit. They rose up to the challenges of what is a very tough, very competitive weekend.

“We have to search inwards, and ultimately, ... the bottom line is we have to be better. That is our challenge.”

And the challenge to return to the top will be steep.

Wartburg returns eight starters and 26 1/2 of its national tournament points. Augsburg and Loras, whose second-place finish was the highest in school history and the first time an Iowa or American Rivers Conference opponent finished higher than the Knights since 2001, return more.

The Auggies return four national champions and 127 of 130 national team points. The Duhawks return 65.5 points.

“Absolutely, next year is going to be very pivotal,” said Briggs, a sophomore who will be one of eight returning starters next season. “Next year for us is like coming back on the back side. Because it is a tough pill to swallow when you lose, but you show your resilience, your strength and your heart ... that is what we are all about at Wartburg.

“As much as this stings right now, it is hopefully what we need to be better in the future than what we are right now.”

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Sports reporter for The Courier

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