The Division II wrestling world had their eyes squarely on Nebraska-Kearney sophomore Jeff Sylvester last Saturday at the NCAA Championships in Mankato, Minn.
The Lyman native, ranked second nationally at 197 lbs., was preparing to take on fourth-ranked Brian Kraemer of North Dakota State for the national title.
To make things a bit more interesting, the winner of this match would determine the team winner as well. A Sylvester win would give the national title to rival Nebraska-Omaha while Kraemer could give his own school a national championship with a victory.
Incidentally, this would be NDSU’s last ever chance at a DII team title as the Bison are moving into Division I next year.
Sylvester, who beat Kraemer in the first round of the 2003 NCAA’s, was coming off a 6-2 win over No. 1 ranked Kevin Lochner of Central Oklahoma in the semifinals. The Morrill High grad had beaten the seventh-ranked individual in his class to reach the semifinals.
Like something a boxing title bout, both wrestlers came out of tunnels and had their names announced. And the P.A. announcer mentioned the importance of the match to everyone. UNO fans suddenly turned into Loper fans.
Kraemer, like the year before, got out to an early lead over Sylvester. But things quickly changed as Sylvester went on to win by major decision, 12-4. It marked Sylvester’s 34th win of the year and his 21st by pin, tech fall or major decision.
Sylvester becomes just the fourth Loper to win a national wrestling title, following Brian Hagan (1990/118 lbs.), Ali Amiri-Eliasi (1990 and 1991/150 lbs.) and Frank Kuchera (2003/174 lbs.). Amiri-Eliasi was the only one to win a title as an underclassman.
Sylvester was one of three Lopers to earn All-American honors at the meet and this trio helped UNK finish eighth overall, its fifth top 10 finish at the meet since 1998.
Considering none of the Lopers six national qualifiers were seniors, the eyes of Division II will be watching UNK and Sylvester for years to come.