DUBUQUE — Cross Cannone has grown accustomed to wrestling with a target on his back.
Ranked No. 1 and an undefeated returning national champion, his target has doubled in size.
That’s just fine with him.
“Whenever you’re No. 1, guys are always looking to beat you,” Cannone said after beating Loras’ Brandon Murray, 6-2, in the 157-pound championship match at the NCAA Division III Lower Midwest Regional on Sunday at Five Flags Center. “It makes me work harder. I like that. It’s either you lose or you’re on top. I go into every day with that mentality just to get better.”
Cannone, who has won 61 consecutive matches since falling in the 2017 national championship match and is 27-0 this year, will be joined by six teammates in two weeks at the Division III championships in Roanoke, Va., including fellow defending champion Brock Rathbun — who was named the regional’s most outstanding wrestler after winning his first three matches by fall in a combined 1 minute, 15 seconds.
Rathbun avenged a regular-season loss with a 15-4 major decision over Loras’ Brice Everson in the 133 final.
“It feels good to get it done,” Rathbun said. “There’s always nerves, but if you trust your coaches and have confidence in yourself, you’re going to do what you want to do.”
Like Cannone, Rathbun appreciates what it means to be hunted.
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“It puts a little pressure on you, but I don’t think it really affects me too much,” said Rathbun, who will take a 23-3 mark into nationals after winning the 133 crown a season ago. “I like it. Everybody likes to see the top guy go down, so you always have eyes on you no matter what you do.”
Kristian Rumph (149 pounds) and Kyle Briggs (174) also won regional titles, and Bowen Wileman was runner-up at 285. Brady Kyner (125) and Brady Fritz (141) each won third-place matches to advance as Wartburg won the team title over American Rivers Conference rival Loras, 169.5-151.5.
The Knights are trying to win their fourth consecutive national team championship.
“We’re going to need everybody to wrestle at their best. That’s honestly what it’s going to come down to,” Knights coach Eric Keller said. “It’s a national tournament and every match is a war. We just need our guys to go out and wrestle how they’re capable. They’ll be prepared, and they just have to go out and have fun and execute.”
The American Rivers Conference earned 23 of the 30 qualifying spots.
Loras matched Wartburg with a program record-tying seven qualifiers, including returning 197-pound national runner-up Guy Patron. The Duhawks also advanced Everson, Clint Lembeck (141), Kevin Kelly (149), Murray (157), Eddie Smith (165) and Jacob Krakow (174).
Coe advanced Jake Voss (174), Josh Edel (184) and Taylor Mehmen (197), while Central sent Cameron Timok (125) and Chase Petty (133).
Luther’s Michael Suarez won a 5-3 decision over Cornell’s Ben Hewson in the 165-pound third-place match to earn a trip to Virginia.
Nebraska Wesleyan (Eron Haynes, 125), Buena Vista (Brad Kerkhoff, 165) and Dubuque (Tevin Bailey, 184) had one qualifier apiece.