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Notre Dame, Liberty are Favorites at Nationals

03/08/2012 -

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NCWA Championships host such a diversified mix of teams this year, even the coaches are buying tournament programs to help check out the competition.

There’s a degree of unfamiliarity within the ranks as the NCWA hosts its 15th national tournament here at the Ocean Center Arena, composed of the largest and certainly the most accomplished field in its history. It’s a season of transition for the NCWA, as well as a handful of its membership who are on the bridge between host associations.

Notre Dame College of Ohio, which won the NAIA Championships the past two years, is the prevailing favorite as the three-day event begins on Thursday. And yet the Falcons, who transition into NCAA Division II membership next year, know little about the majority of the teams that will be vying for the title. But that’s not enough to knock them from the favorite’s role, and their tournament-high 17 qualifiers only strengthen their case.

One of the teams chasing the Falcons is Liberty, which only a year ago was wrestling at the NCAA Division I Championships before the school reclassified the program following the season. The Flames, also in their first year of NCWA membership, have the second-most qualifiers with 14. (The NCWA allows teams to qualify two wrestlers into the brackets, one of which must be declared a non-scoring entrant prior to the tournament’s start.)

California Baptist, the defending national champion and another team on its way into NCAA membership, has a history with Notre Dame from its own days in the NAIA. The Lancers have 12 qualifiers, as well as an advantage of two full seasons in the NCWA.

The NCWA welcomed Lindenwood-St. Charles and McKendree this year as well, teams that placed second and third, respectively, to Notre Dame last year as will join the NCAA in future years. They’ll get another shot this weekend, along with Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, a team headed into NCAA Division I next year. SIUE is in its fourth year in the NCWA, and has placed 20th, 3rd and 4th in previous national tournaments.

There’s even a Canadian team – Simon Fraser – that has NCWA and NAIA roots but will head into the NCAA in future years.

If reading about these teams and where they came from or where they’re headed sounds like alphabet soup, we agree. Hence the run on tournament programs.

But such is the blend of teams that makes the NCWA Championships the most unique collegiate postseason tournament this year. It also happens to be the largest, with 354 entrants.

“It’s a great mix of schools from every level of all three national wrestling bodies, no matter whether they’re coming or going,” said Jim Giunta, executive director of the NCWA. “If you ever wanted to see the best teams from around the country, outside of NCAA Division I compete for one postseason national championship, this is your chance.”

Most of the transitioning teams battled two weeks ago at the NCWA’s North Central Conference Championships, which Notre Dame won. Also coming out of that conference were Lindenwood-St. Charles (13 qualifiers to nationals), McKendree (10) and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (9).

Longtime NCWA powers are at the top of the mix, too. Marion Military Institute (Ala.) is tied with Liberty for the second most qualifiers with 14. Maryland-Baltimore County has 12, Central Florida 11 and The Apprentice School and Grand Valley State have 10 each.

“We’re looking forward to watching the matchups between our new schools and our older ones as they develop,” Giunta said.

How the in-state schools fare will be a topic of conversation as the NCWA, which has been a leader in developing collegiate wrestling in the southeast, returns its championships to Florida for a second time.

UCF, a three-time national champion, is a Division I program in the NCWA. There are 11 other programs in Florida competing in Division II, or the “emerging program” division. A school from Florida has won five of the previous 14 national titles, and at least one of the NCWA’s Southeast Conference teams has placed in the top five in every NCWA Championship Tournament spanning 14 seasons.