KEARNEY, Neb. — In a championship crisis, UNO's seniors carried the day.
Mario Morgan, Ryan Pankoke and Aaron Denson all won individual titles Saturday as the Mavericks — in a too-close-for-comfort three-team battle with Augustana and St. Cloud State heading into the semifinals — pulled away to win their third straight Division II national wrestling championship.
“Three seniors in the finals, and all of those guys have been through adversity,” UNO coach Mike Denney said. “The work they've put in over the years …”
Morgan got two first-period takedowns for a 4-1 lead and cruised to a 12-5 win over UNK's Dalton Jensen, a senior from Missouri Valley, Iowa, in the 141-pound final.
Pankoke's 3-2 win over Luke Rynish of Wisconsin-Parkside at 174 clinched the Mavs' sixth title in the past eight years and seventh Division II crown overall.
Only St. Cloud State was still in contention after UNO went 3-1 in the semifinals and Augustana went 1-5.
“We had a hard round in the quarterfinals (Friday) — things just didn't go our way,” Pankoke said. “But we stuck together, and we knew we had it if everyone stuck together and performed. I can't say I clinched it — it was a whole team performance, and someone had to do it.”
Denson, who went from 165-pound finalist in 2009 to not placing at 174 last year, added the finishing touches with a 6-4 win over Charlie Pipher of Western State (Colo.) at 184.
“Nothing changed anything for me, because I knew Ryan was going to win,” Denson said. “I knew it was going to work out.”
After running away with the past two titles and clinching them before the finals, UNO was counting points all day Saturday. The Mavs finished with 102.5 points, while St. Cloud State had 90.5 and Augustana 81.5
“I just felt like they were going to be sharper today,” Denney said. “And they came through.”
UNO could thank its system-mates from the host University of Nebraska at Kearney for stifling Augustana's momentum. The Vikings had six semifinalists, but lost five in a row after a stirring win at 125.
Defending national champion Jay Sherer took the mat for the 141 semis, but the second-ranked wrestler from Columbus, Neb., was pinned by the Lopers' third-ranked Jensen in just 17 seconds.
Augustana's Jeremy Jeremiason lost at 133 after Sherer's loss, then UNK's third-ranked T.J. Hepburn beat Augie's fourth-ranked Nate Herda in the 149 semis, 4-2 in sudden victory.
But, while UNO increased its lead over Augustana, St. Cloud State made a charge and pulled within 86.5-83.5 heading into the medal round.
UNO's lead was four points — 90.5-86.5 — heading into the finals. Assuming there were no bonus points for pins, technical falls or major decisions, UNO needed one win more than the Huskies to assure the title.
Morgan, whose late escape in a Jan. 29 dual with the Lopers produced a 4-3 victory over Jensen, went on the attack early. Morgan's trip to the finals was nearly short-circuited in Friday's second round, when he was trailing 3-2 before pinning San Francisco State's Naveed Bagheri with 34 seconds left.
“The first takedown is so key, especially on a stage like this,” Morgan said. “It just sets the tempo and it can start the ball rolling. All tournament long I'd been getting scored on first, and I just couldn't let that happen.”
The top-ranked Chicago native went 3, 2, 1 on his journey to a championship, moving one step higher on the medal platform each year after finishing third as a sophomore.
The top-ranked Pankoke, from Beaver Crossing, Neb., reached the final by beating Grand Canyon's second-ranked Victor Carazo, a rematch of last year's third-place match at 165, 3-2. The win over Rynish was his 34th straight.
He broke a 2-2 tie on an escape with 1:41 left, then survived a wild scramble that resulted in a stalemate with 26 seconds to go.
“I just wanted to go slow and make sure that nothing crazy happened,” Pankoke said. “I wanted to score, but I'll take the stalemate over losing the tournament.”
Denson, from Millard South, took the day off last year after his disappointing nationals finish. Then he went back to work the next.
“I couldn't bear what I did last year, so I got right back in the weight room and worked out every day knowing that this was going to be the outcome,” Denson said. “It's a relief, and I'm just excited right now.”
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