The Eagles will be at Nebraska-Kearney this Friday and Saturday, Mar. 11-12, for the NCAA Division II Championships. Ashland has six wrestlers in Nebraska, that's the largest contingent AU has taken to nationals under head coach Tim Dernlan, now in his third season. The Eagles are ranked 11th in the nation. AU's last finish in the Top 10 at nationals came in 2002 when the Eagles finished fourth.
Nebraska-Omaha is the favorite to win the national title. UNO finished first at the Super Regional 2 championship meet. AU was second at that event. Nebraska-Omaha has won the lsat two national championships. St. Cloud State is ranked second in the nation and Newberry is ranked third. UNO has four top-ranked wrestlers at nationals – 141-pounder Mario Morgan, 149-pound Esai Dominguez, 157-pound George Ivanov and 174-pound Ryan Pankoke.
The Ashland Lineup
Information on AU's six wrestlers at nationals can be found below.
125 – Dan Mandara (JR, Canadaigua, N.Y.) – Mandara is 19-7. He was the runnerup at the regional meet. This is his first trip to nationals.
141 – Kyle Kanaga (SR, Greensboro, N.C./Ragsdale) – Kanaga is 25-10 and placed second at the regional championships. This is Kanaga's second trip to nationals. He has never won a match at nationals.
149 – Dan Genetin (SO, Navarre, Ohio/Massillon Perry) – The sophomore is at regionals for the second straight year. He is 24-11 this season and was the runnerup at the regional meet.
165 – Brandon Kelly (SR, Fort Myers, Fla./Newberry) – Kelley is 18-4 and ranked seventh in the country. This is his first season at Ashland. Kelly earned All-America honors (he finished eighth) while wrestling at Newberry. At the regional championships, Kelly finished second.
174 – Ryan Thatcher (SO, Loudonville, Ohio) – Thatcher is 25-10 and placed fourth at the Super Region 2 Championships. This is his initial visit to nationals.
285 – Jacob Southwick (JR, Bowling Green, Ohio/Otsego) – The junior is ranked fifth in the country and has set a school single-season record for pins (18). Southwick is a regional champion.
State of the Eagles
The only wrestler AU has at nationals who has won a match on the big stage is Kelly. Three of Ashland's wrestlers at nationals are there for the first time. While the Eagles haven't experienced a lot of success at this level recently, Dernlan says they are fine physically and mentally.
"We're healthy and we're well prepared," said the AU head coach. "Everyone is prepared to do well. I'll just remind them that they're well prepared. They just need to focus on their first match. That's the only thing that's really important right now. It's still about the team. They can still do something as a team."
Dernlan says he has not spent a lot of time studying the bracket and looking beyond each wrestler's first match.
"We're looking at the first match," he emphasized. "We'll look at our game plan. Right now we're focusing on ourselves."
The AU coach admits the days leading up to competition can be difficult. There is a lot of idle time, a lot of time to sit and think about what could happen.
"We'll just keep talking to them and reminding them that they're having a great year, that they're great wrestlers," said Dernlan. "We don't want them to get wrapped up in how they feel."
Kanaga is one of two seniors the Eagles have at nationals. His first trip to nationals came several years ago. He's matured a great deal since that time and throughout this season, has been a consistent presence at 141 pounds.
"He's ready mentally," Dernlan said. "He looks at things outside of wrestling, I think he realizes that life isn't wrestling. I think that's helped him focus mentally."
No Heavy Issues at Heavyweight
Dernlan was asked earlier this week which of the wrestlers has made the largest improvement. He was quick to reply.
"Jacob Southwick," said Dernlan. "Remember, he was 0-4 at regionals the last two years."
Dernlan also said it's not hard to identify what Southwick did to turn around his career.
"He started to focus on his kind of wrestling," Dernlan said. "Instead of worrying about everybody else, he realized what his strengths are and focused on that. He got himself in positions where he could be successful."
Dernlan's Championship Take
Like everyone else, Dernlan sees Nebraska-Omaha as the overwhelming favorite to win the national title. After that, his crystal ball is cloudy.
"It should be a good fight because a lot of the teams between two and 12, it's pretty close," said Dernlan.
St. Cloud State, which is ranked second, has one grappler ranked first in the country. That's Jacob Kahnke at 285 pounds.