CEDAR RAPIDS — We’re back, and we’re here to stay.
That was the message the Upper Iowa University wrestling sent to the rest of the NCAA Division II wrestling world on Saturday during the final day of the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships at the U.S. Cellular Center.
By the time the final match ended and the lights were turned off, the Peacock had crowned their first national champion — Josh Walker at 133 pounds — in six years, had their first national runner-up — Maleek Williams at 125 — since 2014, had two national finalists for the first time since 2010, had their most All-Americans (4) in five years and brought home their first team trophy — the Peacocks finished fourth — since 2011.
With three of the four All-Americans returning and four of their national qualifiers coming back, the Peacocks are ready to make this an annual celebration, only on a much grander scale.
The Peacocks are back, and they’re here to stay.
It feels good. It’s been a few years since we’ve done that. I feel like someone said, ‘It’s back. The trophy is back.’ We have a lot of energy rolling through the program right now. We kept one eye on the present and one eye on the future. As excited as I am now, I’m just as excited or even more excited about what is to come,” Upper Iowa head coach Heath Grimm said. “We have a lot of talent coming back, but it starts with that administrative support and alumni support. It’s through the roof right now. It all starts with our new hire in Rick Hartzell as our A.D and all these alumni who have rallied around our program for a decade. They really want to see this thing go. We’re going to do big things. It’s not a matter of if we’re going to win a national team title. It’s a matter of when.”
It was the culmination of a vision Grimm had after last year’s national tournament. That vision came to fruition on Saturday night.
“I was just trying to worry about myself to get the job done. I wasn’t even aware until after somebody told me that I locked it up for us,” said Walker, whose 1-0 victory over George Farmah of Minnesota State-Mankato in the finals clinched a team trophy for his team. “It’s something we have been talking about since last year. I’ll never forget how I found out that we were hosting it here in Cedar Rapids was a week or so after the national tournament last year.
Coach said he had a vision of us holding up a trophy there in Cedar Rapids. It’s what we’ve talked about all year. It’s something we’ve all all worked for, even the guys that didn’t make it here. To know that after this makes it even more incredible and surreal. Every single day since last year, every single workout through the summer to this day, I’ve thought about one thing and that’s finishing the way we did. To bring home the team trophy too — it’s everything.”
“That’s a great feeling. Words can’t even describe it. It’s just a totally different feeling. It’s overwhelming,” said Williams, who lost a 17-2 technical fall to Eli Hale of Central Oklahoma in the finals at 125. “Starting now, I’m training to be a national champ. So no matter what, I have to go out there and go balls to the wall. I trained hard this season, but guess what? Next season is nothing but training even harder. You think there is a wall you can’t break through, but now it’s been broken and it’s time to break through it even more. We’re trying to get on top of that podium. Hopefully coming home with a team trophy and a national title. That’s my philosophy going into it now. I have to go and train even harder. A wise man once told me that Dan Gable took a loss and from that loss Dan Gable learned that if he didn’t want to lose, he had to work even harder. That seems like that’s what I’m going to have to do.”
Walker was simply dominant in his run to a title at 133. The senior, who was a four-time All-American, didn’t allow a single point in his four matches over two days. That march included a pair of pins, including one in 4 minutes, 37 seconds over Bryce Shoemaker of Nebraska-Kearney in the semifinals when he saw an opening to throw a headlock and capitalized on the opening.
“I’d say here lately it’s been special occasions. Last year I relied on it a lot more than I have this year, but she’s definitely back there and she’s tucked away,” Walker said of using the headlock, which set up a rematch of the regional final against Farmah. “I’ll feel fulfilled once I have fulfilled what I’m after. It’s just a matter of keeping my mind right and staying calm. I expect a barnburner on this next one. We’ve wrestled three times in the last two months. No matter how different our styles or skills are, you wrestle someone three times in a month competitively, you build a tolerance toward each other. I’m going to have to be wary of that.”
Walker got defensive in the final, staying low to keep Farmah from getting to his legs. Walker scored the only point of the match on an escape in the second period. Farmah chose the neutral position to start the third period, a testament to Walker’s ability to put on a tough ride on top.
“It means everything. I just know that no matter what happens in life at this point, I’m set. I’m not talking from a financial standpoint or anything like that. I’m talking about I finished my business and to me wrestling is everything. It’s taught me everything I know. To be able to finish my career with everyone around me, it’s just so great. It’s everything. Every step I take through like I’ll know I’ll have this underneath me, to look back and reflect on and build off of. It’s great,” Walker said. “It means everything. Not just the national championship, but to be here in Cedar Rapids with my second family and this community around me. The national championships is important, but even more to end my wrestling career. I’m 24 years old and I’ve been wrestling since I was six. To finish on top, it’s a dream come true.”
“It’s the right culmination of what should have happened. The kid has done everything right, from nutrition to strength training and wrestling room habits and the way he goes about his business. It all culminates in a title. But things get in the way of that here and there. So for that not to happen and to have him get his hand raised in his final match and secure a team trophy for this program, it doesn’t get any sweeter than that,” Grimm said.
Williams pulled off an upset in the semifinals, using an escape in the last 30 seconds to take a 4-3 lead on former Clarion-Goldfiekld-Dows standout Josh Portillo of Nebraska-Kearney. Williams sealed it with a four-point move in the waning seconds, catching Portillo trying for a throw.
“When he tied it, what was going through my mind was, ‘Woe, we can’t just win this match by two. We can’t just stall it out now. We actually have to do something,’” Williams said. “With 32 seconds left in that match, I went back to the center and I knew for a fact that it was make or break time. Either I was going to get the escape and get out or it wasn’t going to be a happy ending. I had to dig deep. That’s the biggest thing we’ve been talking about going into the regional tournament. Either you can let those fears rule you or you can go out there and overcome them and let them be fuel to that fire. That’s the one thing I had to do was make it a fire. I got that escape and I was like, cool, we can kind of skate on this. Right at the end he he tried to do a throw and he floated it and I got the takedown, got some nearfall and iced the match. That felt real good, very emotional.”
Williams was simply overmatched in the final. Hale, a transfer from Oklahoma State, scored the first takedown eight seconds in, then added three four-point near-fall tilts. Williams was able to score a takedown in the second period, but Hale countered with an escape and a final takedown, ending it on a technical fall 3:49 in at 17-2.
“He hit me with a good one. He hit a nice shot and got the takedown. We trained for it, but I just wasn’t expecting it. He got on top and it’s like I just told him, face to face, ‘Man, you are a beast on top, bro.’ Not too many people stay on top of me and ride me like he rode me. He rode me for a whole period. He got his turns and he did what he had to do. He knew what he had to do and he knew how he was going to beat me and that’s what he did,” Williams said.
“I live in the moment. Tomorrow is promised to nobody. He made the most of this opportunity coming in as a fourth-place finisher at the regional. And then to beat Portillo, who is a DI transfer who we all know in Iowa and went down to Kearny and beat him in he semis. And then to get a chance against another DI fallout,” Grimm said. “Hale is tough. I have a lot of respect for him. We were a little nervous. I just talked to Maleek and he let the moment maybe get him a little bit. He was too defensive were his words. If he is the boss and he fights and gets himself in the right position … he did score there on a takedown that Hale kind of conceded. We have to learn from that. He’s well on his way to doing big things, as well.”
Two other Peacocks finished with All-America honors. Junior Damian Penichet, after losing a heart-breaking 9-7 match in sudden victory to Daxton Gordon of California Baptist in the semifinals, came back with a 6-1 win over Isaiah Kemper of McKendree before dropping a 12-2 major decision to Frank Yattoni of Wisconsin-Parkside to finish fourth at 149.
“I wish I would have made it to the finals or at least got third, but I’m still happy with what I accomplished today, getting All-American. That was my goal all year, so I’m happy,” Penichet said. “I didn’t even think it was going to be that close coming into the tournament, but I wrestled the way I’ve been wrestling my whole life. That’s what got me this far.”
Baumler, a sophomore, lost a 5-0 decision to eventual national champion Luke Cramer of Ashland in the quarterfinals at 197. Baumler came back to finish strong with an 8-4 win over James Lehman of Wisconsin-Parkside to take seventh.
“It’s always good to end on an odd number, build off of it for next year. It was huge for me. I struggled last year as a true freshman. Being an All-American this year, I took a huge step in the right direction,” Baumler said. “It furthers my goal. I feel like I can compete with anybody now. I guess my goal now is to win the whole thing. It’s going to be a lot of work. I put in a lot of work this season. It’s going to take even more next year to win the thing.”
Three other Iowans finished with All-America honors.
Portillo, after the tough loss to Williams in the semifinals at 125, lost a 5-3 match to Ivan McClay of Notre Dame (Ohio) in the consolation semifinals before ending with a 9-5 win over Carlos Jacquez of Lindenwood to finish fifth.
Matt Malcom, a freshman at Nebraska-Kearney and the career leader in wins, pins and takedowns for Glenwood High School, pinned Jared Reis of Mary in 43 seconds in the consolation semifinals at 157 before falling to Fernie Silva of Notre Dame, 12-7, to finish fourth.
“It was pretty cool. Our whole team, none of us really wrestled up to where we wanted to, but I feel like we wrestled pretty well.”
“I have a lot to build on for next year. I’m pretty excited,” said Malcom, who transferred to Nebraska-Kearney after spending last year at Iowa. “There was a lot of different things that went into it. It really came down to I wasn’t very happy there last year. I found a place where I can be happy and have fun all the time.”
Minnesota State-Mankato sophomore Zach Johnston, a three-time state qualifier and a state champion his senior year at ADM High School, finished on a winning note with a 12-5 win over Zach Stodden of Nebraska-Kearney to take seventh at 174.
“It feels really good to become an All-American. It’s been a really long season. I think we all put in a lot of work as a team to get there. This was a huge step. I was about a .500 wrestler last season, so All-American is a big difference this year,” Johnston said. “The big thing is focus. I also give credit to our coaches and Corey Abernathy, our 184-pounder. He helped me a lot this season on focusing on my goals and getting to where I want to be.”