By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Jarrod Hinrichs and his Loper teammates were preparing for their final workout of the season when the University of Nebraska at Kearney wrestling coaches called an impromptu meeting.
It was around 4 p.m. March 12, less than 24 hours before the NCAA Division II Championships were scheduled to begin at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“You could tell by the look on their faces they were about to give us some real bad news,” said Hinrichs, one of seven Lopers who qualified for the national tournament.
“There was just a weird feeling all day.”
Like most college students, the UNK wrestlers were following social media from the team hotel. They knew athletic events across the country were being impacted by the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
But that did little to soften the blow when their coaches made the stunning announcement. The NCAA was canceling all remaining winter and spring championships, including the Division II wrestling tournament, to protect the public’s health and ensure these events didn’t contribute to the worldwide pandemic.
It was a gut punch for Hinrichs, who suddenly realized his wrestling career was over.
“It was really tough,” the 6-foot-2 heavyweight said. “You don’t like to cry in front of people, but there are some things you can’t really hold back. I really had to process it for a while.”
Hinrichs, a redshirt senior ranked 12th in the country, was hoping his final season would end with a pair of national championships. Individually, he carried a 19-4 record into this year’s Division II tournament after winning a regional title in Kearney.
The sixth-ranked Lopers were also peaking as a team, he said. Their seven national qualifiers – one more than last year’s team, which finished fifth at the Division II Championships – included four returning national finalists. Hinrichs, Wesley Dawkins and Josh Portillo were national runners-up in 2019, and Matt Malcom won a national title at 157 pounds.
“You’ll never be able to say it, but I feel like the 2020 Loper national champions would have been a thing,” Hinrichs said. “We had the firepower for it.”
Although he’ll likely think about those what-ifs for years to come, the 22-year-old isn’t questioning the NCAA’s decision. He knows there are things way bigger than sports.
“The reality is people are going to die from this situation,” Hinrichs said. “I get to go home, sit on the couch, play video games and do my schoolwork. There are other people who are way worse off than me not being able to wrestle anymore.”
Hinrichs completed his UNK career with a 109-37 record, ranking 12th in school history in wins.
As a redshirt sophomore, the Geneva native went 40-10 with a team-best 14 falls, becoming just the fifth Loper to record at least 40 victories in a season. He was named Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) Wrestler of the Week three times that season, which included a regional championship and an eighth-place finish at the Division II national tournament.
“Jarrod’s had a great career – way above and beyond what we could have ever expected out of him,” UNK head wrestling coach Dalton Jensen said of the two-time All-American. “He’s a kid who was going to have to work for everything he got, and he did that plus some.
“Our guys knew he was going to leave it all on the mat every time he wrestled.”
A graduate of Fillmore Central High School, where he posted a 167-17 career record and won a Class C state championship in 2015, Hinrichs came to UNK because he wanted to be part of a “dynasty.”
Over the past five years, he also became part of something much more important – the Loper wrestling family.
Jensen, assistant head coach Andrew Sorenson and Athletic Director Marc Bauer, the former head wrestling coach, are father figures to him, according to Hinrichs, and his teammates are like brothers.
“They really have a knack for taking 30 strangers and turning them into a family,” Hinrichs said. “That’s the best thing about this team. It’s not the fact that we can go out and win matches. It’s the fact that at the end of the day, if something bad happens, I don’t have to go all the way home because I have people here who are going to help me.”
An elementary special education major, Hinrichs will student teach next semester before graduating in December.
He called his time at UNK “a blessing.”
“It’s been five of the best years of my life,” Hinrichs said. “I’ll always be a Loper.”