Nebraska senior Josh Ihnen is back in familiar territory this week — and not just because he's making his fourth trip to the NCAA wrestling championships.
The Sheldon, Iowa, native will wrestle his final collegiate meet at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, the same building where he won a high school state title as a senior in 2008.
“I have a lot of family in the Des Moines area. It will be a great environment to compete for my last time around,” said Ihnen, who competes at 184 pounds. “It's a little surreal (that this is my last meet). But you just have to take it as it is and end your college career on a good note.”
Ihnen finished his high school senior year 47-0. In 2007, his only loss came in the state final. And Ihnen certainly has had some heartbreaking finishes at past NCAA championships.
He finished one win shy of being an All-American during his freshman and sophomore seasons. Last season, he became an All-American by winning three of his first four matches at nationals. But in his fifth match, he tore the LCL and PCL in his right knee, abruptly ending his tournament as he finished in eighth place.
He spent the spring and summer rehabbing the injury. But this season, he's shown no ill effects as he goes into nationals with a 24-6 record and seeded eighth in his weight class.
“I haven't had any problems with it at all,” Ihnen said. “I really don't even think about it anymore. Coming back from that injury, I think, has actually made me a stronger wrestler.”
Ihnen also is driven by what he considered a subpar performance at the Big Ten championships two weeks ago.
Ihnen reached the semifinals before dropping a 10-2 decision to Minnesota's Kevin Steinhaus. He later lost 8-1 to Iowa's Ethen Lofthouse in the third-place match.
“I was disappointed with my wrestling at the Big Ten tournament,” Ihnen said. “I think I put too much pressure on myself and tried to force things. I've gotten a lot more calmed down and had a great week of training. I think my wrestling is where it needs to be for this tournament.”
Ihnen will be one of seven Huskers competing at nationals. Three of the Huskers got into the field with at-large bids, including Ihnen's roommate, senior Ridge Kiley. Kiley had been nationally ranked earlier this season but went 0-2 in the 141-pound weight class at the Big Ten championships.
“I actually heard it from him firsthand,” said Ihnen of Kiley finding out about the at-large bid. “He didn't have a good Big Ten tournament, so this gives him a second chance. I'm really happy for him.”
Ihnen and Kiley are NU's only seniors at nationals. Nebraska coach Mark Manning said Ihnen is a quiet leader who prefers to lead by example. That leadership style has worked with his teammates.
“He knows what it takes to get to the top and he just kind of relays that to us,” said sophomore Robert Kokesh, who is seeded fourth at 174 pounds at nationals. “He's shown that you need to put the time and effort in.”
Ihnen already knows what he'll be doing once this weekend is completed. Ihnen is on track to earn his master's degree in business. Ihnen, who was a CoSIDA second-team academic All-American last season, will have his course work done by the end of May and will graduate in August.
He's already accepted a job with Union Pacific and will start there at the end of May.
But this weekend, Ihnen said his sole focus is on wrestling the best that he can. Three wins this weekend will give Ihnen 100 wins at Nebraska — only 20 Huskers have ever finished with 100 or more wins.
“There's been a lot of highs and a lot of lows, too. But overall, if I had to go back and do it again, I really wouldn't go back and change anything,” Ihnen said of his collegiate career. “The adversity certainly has helped me outside the room as well. Overall, it's been great.”
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