CLEVELAND - Weight rooms around the country are filled with young men who have shoulders as thick as cinder blocks and arms as rugged as steel beams. That's evident with one quick glance.
Here's what can't be determined by the eye test - what the gray matter looks like.
Saturday (Mar. 15) at the 2014 NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships in Cleveland, three well-built AU wrestlers turned to what's between the ears to push them to their best finishes ever. There's no gray area with what that trio accomplished on the final day of the Championships.
At 133 pounds, sophomore Michael Labry bounced back from a gut-wrenching overtime loss in the semifinals to finish third. That's the best finish by an AU wrestler since Jacob Southwick was third at 285 pounds in 2012. A year ago ago, Labry was fourth.
Joe Brandt, wrestling at 197 pounds, claimed his third All-America citation with a fifth place finish. Brandt, a junior, was seventh each of the last two years.
Junior Bryson Hall, AU's entrant at 184 pounds, went 0-2 on Saturday but ended up eighth. He is an All-America for the first time in his career.
Labry is ranked second in the country and in the semifinals, faced Donald DeShazer of Nebraska-Kearney. DeShazer is ranked first and is the defending national champ. The match was close, and intense from the opening whistle. The two went into overtime and the match turned on a call where the official ruled that Labry was fleeing out of bounds. In the opinion of Labry and AU head coach Josh Hutchens, Labry was doing the only thing he could do to defend himself.
The call went to video review and was upheld. That gave DeShazer a 3-2 victory and sent Labry into the bottom half of the bracket.
The crowd in Public Auditorium, and not just the AU faithful, hooted and hollered as Labry staggered off the mat. They never really recovered from that turn of events. Labry did, however. In his next match, he won, 8-6 in overtime over Kutztown's Evan Yenolevich of Kutztown, who's ranked seventh in the country.
That sent Labry to the consolation final, where he stopped Dustin Stodola of Chadron State, 6-1. Stodola is ranked sixth.
"That's pretty impressive," said Hutchens. "Of all the guys I've seen, to have a close call, a controversial call and be able to come back to finish third, that's impressive. You can't help but think, 'I should be in the final.' To be able to re-focus and come back out and wrestle, that's difficult.
"This is about life and learning lessons from life," continued Hutchens. "Life is going to deal you some bad calls. It's how you deal with it. He dealt with it and it's great to see how this athlete handled it."
Brandt is accustomed to dealing with life at the championships. He's proven to be extremely reliable. Against all comers and in all situations, he's been succesful.
"I keep my mind clear and try not to think about everything else," Brandt said. "A clear mind is a successful mind."
Brandt's day began with a 5-2 win over Lake Erie's Evan Rosborough, the GLIAC freshman of the year. This was Brandt's third win over the LEC grappler this season. Brandt lost to him once this year - that was when Brandt was working his way back from an abdominal injury.
"I knew I could blast right through him," said Brandt. "He's a freshman with nothing to lose. I was like that. The pressure builds every year, after my freshman year it was like six times more. Last year was my learning curve. I came here ranked first. Just because you're No. 1 doesn't mean you win it."
Brandt lost his second match on Saturday, 4-2 in overtime to Upper Iowa's Carl Broghammer. Broghammer is ranked second in the country and Brandt is sixth.
That sent Brandt into a match with Tanner Kriss of Fort Hays State. On Friday, Kriss edged Brant, 3-2. This time, there would be no down-to-the-wire decision. Brandt, looking strong and fresh, won by pin in 2:10.
"It's his work ethic," replied Hutchens, when asked why Brandt is so good at this time of the year. It's his conditioning, his weight lifting, his attention to technique. He lifted and built himself up to 197. Then he worked on conditioning. He just pushes, pushes, pushes. That's what guys try to do against him, do what I call the 'rope-a-dope.' They try to make him beat himself."
"The way I see it, everything comes down to this time of the year," said Brandt. "At this time of the year, you've put the time and the work in. Everything comes down to this week. In reality, the season doesn't mean anything, it all comes down to this. It comes down to who has the most heart."
Hall's Saturday began with a 5-0 loss to Dallas Smith of Ouachita Baptist. Smith was the national runner-up a year ago. After that setback, Hall faced Mark Fiala of Nebraska-Kearney. Fiala is ranked seventh and Hall is fourth. On Friday, Hall took a 3-2 decision from Fiala. This time, the UNK wrestler was a 6-3 winner.
"Bryson has the talent to be an All-American," Hutchens said. "He qualified for nationals as a freshman and didn't place and then last year, he didn't make it. This year he got the monkey off his back. That match to place was intense for him to say the least. Now he can focus on improving for next year."
The Eagles finished 14th in the team standings. AU entered the national meet ranked 15th. Top-ranked Notre Dame won the team championship.