Maleek Williams of Upper Iowa
Photo by Russ De Hoedt
CEDAR RAPIDS — Maleek Williams is just lucky to be alive.
Just over two years after suffering a stroke, the Upper Iowa University junior battled all the way back, earning a spot in the semifinals and guaranteeing himself All-America honors on Friday at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships at the U.S. Cellular Center.
Williams did it in style, racking up 23 points in his two matches and leaving no doubt.
Two years ago, Williams was battling for his life. On Saturday, he will be battling for a spot in the national championship match at 125 pounds.
“I knew it was possible. Even with all of that. The biggest thing I was telling myself while I was going through that whole predicament was that I was going to make it back. I made it back and I made it to the national tournament.
Then I was like, ‘You know what? That’s not enough. We can do a lot more. We can be an All-American. We can be a national champ. But we have to keep training and training hard,” Williams said. “With God all things are possible. If He really wanted to, He could have taken my life that day and I wouldn’t be able to do it. But He gave me a second chance for a reason. I’m pretty sure this is the reason why He gave me that second chance.”
“That’s good and the better part of that equation is not giving up points. That’s Maleek. Maleek can put up points. He’s a beast. But there’s been times when he’s been too much of a bully out there and he’ll put himself in harm’s way. He didn’t do that today,” Upper Iowa head coach Heath Grimm said. “He’s an All-American. I’m really proud of that guy. But you know, tomorrow is promised to nobody. That is a really good perspective. We’ve been trying to build better men all year. We’ve had trials and tribulations and we’ve all been there for each other.”
Williams will have a few familiar faces joining him in the semifinals. Upper Iowa teammates Josh Walker (133) and Damian Penichet (149) also earned spots in the semifinals.
Walker, ranked second, used a tough ride in the third period for a 2-0 win over sixth-ranked Kelan McKenna of Notre Dame in the quarterfinals.
“At the least it’s stage two of my ultimate goal. The first part of getting to a national championship is you have to All-American. I’ve made it to the semis. It feels good, but I’m really not on track to dwell on it too much because I’ve got bigger goals than that. At this points it’s just a matter of getting my mind right and physical preparation for (Saturday) and go out and do the same thing,” Walker said.
Penichet, a junior, scored a takedown with six seconds remaining for a 5-3 win over second-ranked Taylor Misuna of Notre Dame to advance.
“I’m speechless right now. That’s been my dream for four years, ever since I graduated high school that’s been my dream. Blood, sweat and tears have gone into this sport. It’s good to see it pay off,” Penichet said. “It makes it way sweeter because I didn’t make it last year. I made it the year before. I’ve always had that goal that I had to make it and I had to All-American. That’s it. Three years is enough. This is my time. Just like my teammate Maleek. It’s our time. That’s how I feel.”
And sophomore Nick Baumler earned All-America status, battling back from a tough 5-0 loss to Luke Cramer of Ashland in the quarterfinals at 197 for a 5-3 win over Samuel Reeves of Truman State in the second round of consolations.
The four All-Americans is the most for Upper Iowa since it had four in 2013.
“I feel terrible for the two guys that aren’t wrestling (Saturday) and I’m excited for the four guys that are, three on the front side. We’re happy with having three on that front side. Baumler on the back side has his first All-American chip as a true sophomore. That was a nice step forward as well,” Grimm said.
By the end of the first day, Upper Iowa found itself in a tie for fourth place with Nebraska-Kearney in the team race with 33 1/2 points. Notre Dame (Ohio) is first with 48 1/2 points, two ahead of St. Cloud State. California Baptist, coached by former Iowa three-time All-American Lennie Zalesky.
All four Peacocks advanced in different fashion.
Seventh-ranked Williams (29-9) piled up 33 points in his two matches and will face sixth-ranked Josh Portillo (12-5) of Nebraska-Kearney in the semifinals at 125. Portillo is a former state champion for Clarion-Goldfield-Dows High School.
“The key component that I’ve been doing lately is trusting the process. Coach Grimm and I have been talking a lot about it lately — trusting the process, trusting the training. We train hard and we have some attacks that we know work. We just have to execute. Just going out there and trusting my training. Not being afraid to go out there and take those shots and getting stretched out. As long as I’m on the offense, nobody can stop me,” Williams said. “Those thoughts and those feelings you can never explain. In the moment it was like, ‘Yes, I did it.’ But the more you think about it and all your training. I train hard. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be in that predicament. It’s kind of mixed emotions, but as of right now I’m happy and I’m proud of myself that I made it to the semifinals.”
Walker, a four-time All-American, rode out sixth-ranked Kelan McKenna of Notre Dame in the third period to post a 2-0 win.
Second-ranked Walker (34-6) will face fourth-ranked Bryce Shoemaker (20-3) of Nebraska-Kearney in the semifinals at 133.
“I could feel his frustration. I heard him yell at his coaches that he didn’t want to go down. I think he knew he made the wrong choice,” Walker said. “I’ve wrestled my whole life. I prefer to be in any position. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good escape and he’s actually pretty tough on top. I think I manage pretty well on my feet. Being on top, I kind of see it as an opportunity. A lot of guys underestimate or underestimate themselves as far as what they can do against me in that position. It’s just a matter of mental toughness. That’s what a tough ride really is.”
Penichet needed a takedown with six seconds left to pull out a stunning 5-3 upset over second-ranked Taylor Misuna of Notre Dame in the quarterfinals at 149.
Eighth-ranked Penichet (28-10), an All-American two years ago who missed the national tournament last year, will take on third-ranked Daxton Gordon (23-2) of California Baptist in the semifinals.
“He got a nice duck-under right there at the end of the season period. I knew it was do or die coming into that third. I could just see it in his face. He looked at me like, ‘Oh crap, I’m going to choke.’ I could tell in his eyes. I was getting in on singles and I was getting in deeper and deeper and he was getting weaker and weaker. I knew I just had to keep on the attack and I’ll get it,” Penichet said. “I almost didn’t know what to do. I just saw the crowd standing up and everybody wearing Peacock, Upper Iowa gear. I have to do it for them. The fans are there through thick and thin. I had to give them a shout out.”
Baumler, after losing a 5-0 match to second-ranked Luke Cramer of Ashland in the quarterfinals at 197, had less than an hour to recover before he came back and beat Reeves, 5-3, to earn All-America honors.
Ninth-ranked Baumler (32-10) will face seventh ranked Matthew Rudy (21-6) in the consolation semifinals.
““That kid was strong. It was a blood bath. They call it the blood round for a reason. It’s a battle. He was really strong. I got to my offense. He’s challenging me late, so I had to get another one. I got that and I got the ‘W.’ It’s a good feeling,” Baumler said. “It was pretty tough. The kid from Ashland was pretty tough. What got me was the quick turnaround. They went right into the next round. Not as many matches. It probably wasn’t an hour before I wrestled again, so I had to recover quick mentally and get the job done. Coming off a loss, usually you want more time to process things. I had to throw it right away and focus on the next one. You have to get ready to wreste again.”
“There’s a lot of contributing factors to that. A lot of guys putting a lot of time in, from strength and nutrition to the athletic training room and obviously to the individual athlete believing in themselves. I’m very pleased with Maleek, with Josh and with Damian and there progression. It’s so easy to get caught up in winning every match, from November to December to January to February and sometime you lose track of progression. I think these guys have bought into that and they’re wrestling their best at this time of the year,” Grimm said.
Upper Iowa’s Dalton Hahn (174) and Logan Hopp (285) each went 0-2 to see their seasons end.
Also earning All-America honors were Nebraska-Kearney freshman Matt Malcom at 157 and Minnesota State’s Zach Johnston. Malcom, a former Glenwood High School standout, beat Pernevlon Shepperd of Wisconsin-Parkside, 4-0, in the blood round. Eleventh-ranked Malcom will face fourth-ranked Ryan Strope of McKendree in the consolation semifinals.
Johnston, a former ADM High School standout, pinned Steven Edwards of Pittsburgh-Johnstown in 2:08 in the blood round at 174. Fourth-ranked Johnston will face sixth-ranked Kolton Eischens of St. Cloud State in the consolation semifinals.
Minnesota State’s Corey Abernathy, a former Waverly-Shell Rock standout, fell onewin short of earning All-America honors at 184, dropping a 5-2 decision to Aero Amo of Augustana (Ill.).