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PREVIEW: Big boys from La Crosse, Wartburg could decide Div. III national team title this weekend

EWING, N.J. - There was plenty of significance attached the last two times University of Wisconsin at La Crosse heavyweight Ryan Allen and Wartburg College's Blake Gillis met at the NCAA Division III Championships.

After all, they met in the final match of the last two national tournaments with Allen earning gold both times.

If they meet a third time this weekend, as expected in the heavyweight finals, the stakes could be even higher.

With Wartburg ranked No. 1 and Wisconsin-La Crosse a close second entering the Division III national meet Friday and Saturday at The College of New Jersey, Allen-Gillis III could decide who carts home the championship trophy.

"I think it's going to be a really good battle for the team title," UWL coach Nate Skaar said. "It may come right down to the last match at heavyweight, you never know. But this isn't just a battle between us and Wartburg. There are a lot of other very good teams who will factor into this."

Gillis actually enters nationals ranked No. 1 with Allen No. 2. Gillis beat Allen twice in open tournaments on back-to-back weekends in November. Skaar said Allen had just returned to the mat after undergoing knee surgery before those two losses.

"Ryan's looking better than he ever has," Skaar said.

Veteran Wartburg coach Jim Miller brings what many wrestling observers call one of his best teams into nationals. The Knights are shooting for their fifth national title since 1996 with a squad that boasts a pair of individual national champions among its nine qualifiers.

Wartburg senior Dustin Hinschberger is shooting for his third national title at 141. Teammate Akeem Carter, a national champ at 197 the last two years, has dropped down a class to 184 this year.

The Knights won the National Duals and captured the Iowa Conference title in record-setting fashion this season.

"We just need to keep doing what we've been doing and wrestle to our potential," Miller said. "I've really enjoyed this team. It has great chemistry and team leadership."

Wisconsin-La Crosse is led by Allen, an NCAA runner-up as a freshman who has won it all the past two years. The Eagles also have four other All-Americans and a national qualifier back from the team that placed fourth last season. They qualified their entire 10-man squad for nationals.

The list of Wisconsin-La Crosse All-Americans also includes Mike Rohowetz (141), Jake Larsen (149), Josh Chelf (174) and Jim Swanson (197).

"We've finally got our entire team healthy for the first time," Skaar said. "We're rolling right now. We're ready to go."
Wisconsin-La Crosse is seeking its first national championship. The Eagles placed second in 2001.

Wisconsin-La Crosse is hoping to break the stranglehold of the 'Burgs' at the D-III meet. Third-ranked Augsburg, the defending champion, and Wartburg have combined to win the last 11 Division III titles. Ithaca was the last non 'Burg' to win it, accomplishing the feat in 1994.

Augsburg has reloaded and retooled after a record-setting 2005 season, bringing eight wrestlers to New Jersey. The Auggies are led by NCAA runner-up Ryan Valek (165), along with All-Americans Brad Tupa (184) and Jared Evans (149).

Fourth-ranked Luther qualified six wrestlers for the national tournament, led by 149-pound national champion Matt Pyle.

Pyle was upset 9-4 by No. 2 Jacob Naig of Wartburg in the Iowa Conference finals. Naig, whose brother J.D. is a returning Division II national champ for Nebraska-Omaha, placed sixth at 149 last year despite wrestling with a knee injury.

Jacob Naig started his career at Nebraska-Omaha before transferring to Wartburg midway through last season.

"Jacob's really come on," Miller said. "He's a really hard worker and we like the way he's progressing."

Rounding out the top 10 teams in Division III are No. 5 SUNY Brockport, No. 6 Loras, No. 7 Johnson & Wales, No. 8 SUNY Cortland, No. 9 York and No. 10 The College of New Jersey.

The top-ranked wrestlers include Hinschberger, Pyle, Gillis, Wartburg's Tyler Hubbard (125), Luther's Mike Lopez (133), College of New Jersey's Joey Galante (157), Wisconsin-Eau Claire's Derek Sikora (165), Cortland's Stef Sair (174), York's Duane Bastress (184), and Wartburg's Tyler Miller (197).

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