CEDAR FALLS – It doesn’t take much to fire up Northern Iowa wrestling coach Doug Schwab.
The 2008 Olympian is one of the most enthusiastic, energetic and passionate coaches in the country.
With a strong, proven and experienced team returning this season, Schwab had plenty of reason to be optimistic and excited during his team’s media day on Wednesday afternoon at UNI’s West Gym.
The Panthers are expected to put a loaded lineup on the mat this season. UNI is ranked 13th nationally in the preseason.
“We have the talent and the ability to score a ton of points at the national tournament – a ton of points,” Schwab said. “It’s just a matter of these guys believing they can do it and going and doing it in March. I’m looking forward to seeing our guys compete and I’m looking forward to the West Gym being packed.”
Northern Iowa brings back six NCAA qualifiers, including returning All-American Jacob Holschlag along with 2017 national tournament medalists Max Thomsen and Drew Foster.
Holschlag, a junior, finished fifth in the country last year at 197 pounds. He was unseeded at the 2018 NCAA tournament and lost his first match before going on a remarkable run in the wrestlebacks.
Holschlag rattled off five straight wins and during that run avenged his first-round loss to No. 6 seed Willie Miklus of Missouri. He finished the tournament by pinning No. 2 seed Ben Darmstadt of Cornell in the fifth-place match.
Holschlag starts this season ranked No. 4 in the country at 197.
“I’m not worried about Holschlag at all,” Schwab said of his high ranking. “He’s gritty and tough. That was no surprise to us that he broke through at the national tournament. He kept believing and he will continue to believe. He loves the sport and his focus is on getting better. Being ranked high doesn’t change anything he does. He’s a great example for our team.”
Thomsen, a junior, is ranked sixth at 149 pounds and Foster, a senior, starts the season at No. 9 at 184. Foster won a Big 12 title last season.
“Both of those guys had some injuries that held them back last year,” Schwab said. “They walked away from the national tournament incredibly disappointed. They’re ready to come back strong this season.”
Senior Bryce Steiert, a two-time national qualifier, is ranked 11th at 165. He redshirted last season and Schwab raved about how good he has looked in practice.
“Sometimes when you get away from the sport you realize how much you really love that sport and how much you miss it,” Schwab said. “I’m excited to have Bryce back in the lineup. He’s made some improvements and we’re ready to unleash him.”
Steiert went 10-1 while wrestling unattached during his redshirt season during the 2017-18 school year. Among his wins was a victory over Lock Haven’s Chance Marsteller, who went on to place fourth at the NCAA tournament. His only loss was to Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph, a two-time national champion.
“I feel like I’ve improved every year and I know I got better when I redshirted last year,” Steiert said. “I’m excited for an opportunity to be back in the lineup. You want to be the guy out there who can win matches for your team. I worked hard on every area of my wrestling. I’m ready to get back out there and compete.”
The Panthers also have ranked wrestlers in junior Taylor Lujan (eighth at 174), junior Jay Schwarm (12th at 125) and senior Josh Alber (14th at 141). Lujan won a Big 12 title last season.
“Lujan is right there,” Schwab said. “He made a big jump last year. He just needs to let it go and let it fly and stay on his attacks.”
UNI finished second at the Big 12 tournament and 24th at the NCAA Championships last season.
Schwab didn’t shy away from talking about lofty goals for this season. The Panthers have earned a total of eight All-American finishes during his first eight seasons. The highest finish was when Joe Colon placed third in 2014.
Northern Iowa’s last national champion was Tony Davis in 2000.
“It’s time to knock that wall over and it is time to really break through because they are right there,” Schwab said. “We have guys on this team who are capable of being on the top of the stand and being national champions. I’ve been around eight national championship teams and we have incredibly capable guys.”
The Northern Iowa program received a big boost when past UNI All-American Joe Colon won a bronze medal at the World Championships on Oct. 21 in Budapest, Hungary. Colon became the first wrestler from UNI to medal at the World Championships.
Schwab also was excited that his beloved Boston Red Sox captured a World Series title earlier in the week. He had a Red Sox sign on the table next to the microphone when he addressed the media Wednesday.
Schwab is beginning his ninth season with the Panthers. He received a three-year contract extension this past spring. That extended his contract at Northern Iowa through March 31, 2024.
The Panthers kick off their season this weekend at Iowa State’s Harold Nichols Open in Ames. They will host the UNI Open on Dec. 8.
Among their biggest duals will be a Dec. 16 home date against No. 9 Cornell and a Feb. 1 Big 12 road matchup against No. 4 Oklahoma State.
UNI’s final dual meet is a Feb. 22 matchup against Iowa State at the West Gym.
The Big 12 Championships are set for March 9-10 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with the NCAA Championships scheduled for March 21-23 in Pittsburgh.
“We want our guys to be incredibly consistent and pay even more attention to detail,” Schwab said. “We know it’s a process and it takes a lot of time and hard work, and I think this team understands that. We just have to go out and perform.”
If the Panthers peak at the right time, they could be one of the nation’s surprise teams this season.
They certainly have the firepower and capability to have a strong season.
“We’re obviously excited for the season to start,” Schwab said. “We know we have a lot of work to do. We still have to continue to get better, but we have a lot of guys who are ready to take it to another level and really break through.
“All 37 guys we have on the roster are critical to what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to move the program forward.”