Northwest finished in top-10 for the 22nd time in the past 23 seasons. The Trappers have earned top-10 finishes in 22 of head coach Jim Zeigler’s 24 seasons at the helm of the program. They finished 21st last season to break a streak of 21 consecutive years in the top-10.
“It’s nice to establish ourselves to back where we were, and I expect to get better from there,” Zeigler said.
A trio of sophomores climbed the podium for the Trappers, who were led by John-David Henderson’s national title at 149 pounds.
“It feels really good to win that, and be on top, and leave Northwest as a champion for coach Zeigler,” Henderson said.
Eduardo Penha placed third at 133 pounds and Matt Schmidt finished sixth at 141 pounds.
“Anytime you can get a national champion, it’s quite a feather in the cap. A kid that didn’t even qualify for nationals last year and is at the very top this year is quite an accomplishment,” Zeigler said. “It confirms in my mind that the system that we’re using works.”
The system helped the successful reclamation project of Henderson, who went winless in the 2015 regional tournament and failed to qualify for the national tournament as a freshman.
“I kind of had a careless attitude and didn’t focus like I should. Not placing, or winning a match in regionals lit a fire under me,” Henderson said. “I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be allowed to come back, so that pushed me to work hard.”
Henderson moved up from 141 pounds this season and finished his NWC career with a 3-2 decision over Chris Garcia of Clackamas in the title bout Saturday night.
Henderson was 5-0 in Council Bluffs, with wins against No. 3-ranked Toby Hague of Gloucester in the semifinals, and No. 1 Ryne Cokely of Iowa Central in the quarters. But it was the unranked Garcia who posed the greatest challenge.
“That was the third time we wrestled each other. When you wrestle someone for a third time, it’s hard to beat them consecutively like that,” Henderson said. “He has good coaches who really work with him and I’m sure they really prepared him for that match. They knew the way I wrestled. He was going to be ready in every way.”
Henderson beat Garcia 7-2 in the final bout of the Western Regionals on Feb. 13 and 7-4 in a dual at Clackamas on Dec. 12.
Despite wins over the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 5 wrestlers during the regular season, Henderson was left unranked until the final poll prior to the national tournament. He entered the tournament ranked sixth in the nation, and seeded ninth in the national bracket.
“I beat them and knocked them off. I really didn’t get credit for it as the rankings go,” Henderson said. “It didn’t bother me, it just pushed me to work harder and keep doing what I was doing. I just wanted to keep winning and just keep proving to people that I was the best.”
Penha pushes through pain
A rib injury in the quarterfinals didn’t stop a determined Penha from improving upon last season’s national tournament appearance, which concluded without a trip to the podium.
Penha bested Curtis Burnett of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in both the quarterfinals and third-place match as the Las Vegas product went 5-1 to finish his NWC career as an All-American.
Strategy and nuance went out the window in the third-place bout, the third time Penha and Burnett squared off this season.
“That was more of a fight, to where we just stared each other down and we just wanted to hit each other,” Penha said of the 9-5 victory.
“They just looked at each other like there’s no secrets here,” Zeigler said. “There’s no secrets and they both went out there and fought hard. And Eduardo ended up being the better man again.”
The two first met at the National Duals in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Penha took it to Burnett with a 10-2 major decision.
Penha lost his semifinal match 5-3 to Shiquan Hall of North Iowa Area Community College, though he said the rib injury sustained in his previous match didn’t inhibit him.
“It hurts, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Either you stop wrestling or you keep wrestling,” Penha said. “He just got up ahead and kept his lead. He wrestled better than me for seven minutes, that was about it.”
Hall would go on to win the 133-pound title with a 5-3 decision over Iowa Central’s Zak Hensley.
An injury at season’s end, which Penha said wouldn’t affect him longterm, was preferable to last year’s midseason injury that interrupted his development. This year, Penha felt like he entered the national tournament with more confidence and momentum.
“Last year, the biggest thing was I got hurt and sat out two months. So I didn’t get the experience and the rhythm you get throughout the season to take into the national tournament,” Penha said. “This year, I wrestled the whole season and felt like I found my moves and my rhythm.”
Penha opened with a 2-1 decision in extra time over No. 5 Andrew Ramirez of Highline, followed by a 9-4 decision against Iowa Western’s Clay Stine, the No. 4-ranked wrestler who fell to Penha again in the consolation semifinals.
Schmidt gets sixth
The objective was simple for Schmidt, a third-year wrestler from Billings, Montana.
“I wanted to get as high on the podium as I possibly could, and I’m sure coach Zeigler had the same expectations for me as well,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt knew he could contend at the national tournament when he found success against high-level opponents at the National Duals.
“I had a pretty tough kid from (Northeastern Oklahoma A&M) and I ended up beating him,” Schmidt said. “It woke me up a little bit, if I keep working hard I can end up on the podium.”
Ironically, that kid was Mitch Sellers, who handed Schmidt both of his losses at nationals, including a pin in the fifth-place bout. Schmidt finished 4-2 at nationals while earning a trip on the podium and All-American status.
“That’s what I’ve worked for. It’s been a goal to leave here with my mark, for sure,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt beat Sellers in a 7-6 decision in Fort Wayne.
Freshmen find footing
Last season, Penha fell short of the podium while Henderson fell short of the national tournament. They are both examples, Zeigler says, of how athletes can take tremendous leaps as sophomores.
Zeigler hopes that’s the case for freshmen Cameron Braden, Justin Polkowske and Heber Shepherd.
“Having my three sophomores all on the podium, I think it shows that a commitment over two, or in Schmidt’s case, three years, really pays off, it pays dividends,” Zeigler said. “They showed those other guys exactly what happened when you stay with it for two years, you can make it happen.”
Braden finished 2-2 and reached the quarterfinals at 157 pounds, Polkowske was 0-2 at 165 pounds and Shepherd went 2-2 at 184 pounds.
All three fell short of the podium, but gained the experience that could help them take the necessary steps forward as sophomores.
“In building this team, those freshmen are guys I didn’t necessarily expect to make the podium this year. It’s a two-year plan with them,” Zeigler said.
Braden, a Moorcroft native, never garnered much attention in Wyoming’s Class 2A, but was a win away from the podium after starting the season outside of Northwest’s starting lineup.
“He made it to the round of 12, what we call the ‘blood round,’” Zeigler said. “He’s just outside that podium mark, and I think that’s a very good freshman campaign for a little guy from Moorcroft, Wyoming, that didn’t even win a state title.”
Braden started the season as a second-string wrestler, but a shake-up that moved both Polkowske and Andrew VonRein up a weight class opened an opportunity for Braden, and he made the most of it.
Zeigler stressed that more wrestlers can do what Braden did if they learn to detach themselves from the status they carried in high school and work for the present.
“So many of the kids come here and they think the measure of what they are and what they’re capable of being, is what they did in high school,” Zeigler said. “Through the course of the first semester I think they learn that all of that is irrelevant. I think that’s what Cam discovered.”
Braden opened with a win over Pratt’s Cade Noble and advanced to the semis with a 15-6 major decision over Wayne Voss of Itasca. Eventual fifth-place finisher Quincy Kalkbrenner of North Iowa Area knocked Braden to the consolations with a 10-2 major decision.
“One of the good things about (Braden) is he’s never been afraid to compete,” Zeigler said. “He goes hard, he doesn’t win or lose his matches before he goes out there, he does it on the mat.”
Polkowske lost 8-3 to Stephon Gray of Iowa Central and 17-10 to Joe Guzzo of Middlesex County, both of whom were competing in their second national tournament.
Shepherd lost to seventh-place finisher Micah Felton of Pratt in the consolations, and sixth-place winner Anthony Liberatore of Niagara in the round of 16. The Spanish Fork, Utah, native won a 2-1 decision in extra time of round one, and pinned Ben Wallace of North Iowa Area in 3:43 of the second consolation round.
“With Heber and Justin, they’re both capable of being on the podium. They’re just freshmen,” Zeigler said.
Northeastern Oklahoma A&M won the national title with 152.5 points, followed by Iowa Central (128) and Ellsworth Community College (98).
Western Wyoming finished in 11th place with 46.5 points.
“If you think I don’t notice that, or keep track of that,” Zeigler said with a smile. “They notice it and so do I.”