UNI’s Parker Keckeisen wrestles Nebraska’s Taylor Venz during the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Little Caesers Arena in Detroit, Michigan on Friday, March 18, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
University of Northern Iowa Coach Doug Schwab has witnessed the effort.
He can also picture the payoff the Panthers’ effort could yield. The product might be one of most experienced and deepest teams in his 12 seasons as UNI head coach.
“I’ve seen the work they’ve put in since last March,” Schwab said. “You start feeling good about that because you’ve seen continued progress and I think that is one thing I feel our team improved throughout the year last year. Where we started and where we finished were two different places.”
All-American and Big 12 champion Parker Keckeisen leads the charge of seven UNI national qualifiers that won at least one match and tied for 20th at last season’s NCAA Championships. The Panthers will look to improve last year’s 7-7 dual record and 6-3 Big 12 mark.
The season opens Nov. 12 at the Grand View Open in Des Moines. UNI’s roster may include the NCAA qualifiers, but few of the starting spots are cemented based on competition and progress in the practice room.
“There are guys behind them and pushing them,” Schwab said. “Hopefully, there is no one saying, ‘Yeah, that’s his spot.’ We’ve got to have every guy try to push this thing forward. Score more points at the national tournament, get more All-Americans, national champions (and) all those things. That’s what the whole group is working to be able to do.”
Keckeisen is a key component in results and leadership. The junior 184-pounder is coming off his second third-place NCAA finish. He is considered a national title contender and will face Penn State NCAA champion Aaron Brooks at the resurrected National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Star Class on Nov. 22 in Austin, Texas.
Keckeisen was 29-2 a year ago. He returns his aggressive and relentless style. Keckeisen sets the example that many of his teammates try to emulate.
“We have some great leaders,” Schwab said. “Obviously, Parker’s results and how he competes are clear to everyone. There aren’t many people who take more risks than him. You have to have big old heart, guts and a gas tank to go with that. You have to practice that way, too. You practice and live in a way that allows that to happen.
“Guys are seeing that and trying to stay up with that.”
Senior Austin Yant (165) and 157-pounder Derek Holschlag are among the returning national qualifiers. They are joined by juniors Kyle Biscoglia (133), 149-pounder Colin Realbuto and Tyrell Gordon at heavyweight. Realbuto, Yant and sophomore 174-pounder Lance Runyon won two matches at the national tournament.
Former Lisbon four-time state champion Cael Happel just missed a berth to the NCAA tournament, serving as an alternate at 141. He finished with a 17-10 record, beating a few ranked opponents.
“You can start there at some of those weight classes with that guy is coming into the year is looked at as the guy or maybe the favorite, so to speak,” Schwab said. “I can tell you we had two guys last year that came in as qualifiers and won matches at the national tournament and they got beat out by someone who went to the national tournament the next year.
“That doesn’t always mean a whole lot, especially when you start progressing and the other guy is not.”
Yant and Runyon are healthy, overcoming previous injuries. Realbuto and Holschlag are strong examples of development within the program.
“Austin is ready to go out in a way, leaving this place with something,” Schwab said. “Getting (Runyon) back healthy at the end of the year was a big deal because you’ve seen flashes of incredible wrestling, big highlights. He had some big wins in some situations. Won a couple matches at nationals. He was able to come back this year. He’s made a jump, too.”
Biscoglia was a Big 12 finalist last season and entered the tournament as the 14th seed. He will battle redshirt freshman Julian Farber for the 133-pound spot. Farber placed seventh at the U23 World Team Trials earlier this year. An example of the Panthers’ depth.
“They’ve had some matches back and forth there,” Schwab said. “We have a couple guys that are ready. They don’t plan on being in the stands watching on Saturday. They’ll push each other to do that.”
The 197-pound spot is a question mark. Last season, Noah Glaser shared time with John Gunderson, who was pulled out of redshirt. Both are in the running again. Wyatt Voelker could be a possibility, if the former West Delaware prep sheds his redshirt. Schwab is still waiting for someone to emerge from the rest.
“We have to figure out who is going to step up there,” Schwab said. “Who is going to be the guy and make the spot theirs? We need somebody to.”
Schwab said recruiting and development have made an impact, creating depth and balance. He noted it was a testament to his coaches and the wrestlers. An expectation this long into his tenure.
“I feel that’s where a program should be,” Schwab said. “If we’re not continuing to evolve, improve and get better then I don’t think we’re doing our job very well. To me, we should have our deepest team and our best team. Hopefully, next year, that’s the same thing. That is what you’re trying to work to do.”