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FEATURE: Nebraska-Omaha's Sigman takes aim at fourth national title



OMAHA - Time was running out and sweat was pouring off Les Sigman's burly 240-pound frame as he chased his opponent all over the mat in the national finals.

The Nebraska-Omaha junior led by 14 points, but in his mind that wasn't enough. It still was one point short of a technical fall.

Sigman captured his third NCAA Division II wrestling title at heavyweight last March with a 18-4 major decision over Chris Tuscherer of Minnesota State Moorhead.

"Les is a perfectionist," said UNO teammate Mitch Waite, a two-time All-American. "He's the only guy I've seen win by major decision in the national finals and not be satisfied. But that's what makes him so great."

Sigman will make a run at history this weekend when he tries to become just the fourth Division II wrestler to win four national titles. He takes aim at title No. 4 Friday and Saturday at the DII Nationals at Findlay University in Findlay, Ohio.

The Sturgis, S.D., native has won 69 straight matches dating back to last season and is a remarkable 161-7 in his career. He is 39-0 this season and has not lost to a Division II foe since December 2002.

In three trips to nationals, Sigman has not allowed an offensive point in 12 matches.

"That's unbelievable," said former Maverick national champ R.J. Nebe, whose career wins record was broken by Sigman this season. "Les is obsessive with wanting to improve. He's a tremendous competitor."

Sigman hopes to lead the top-ranked Mavericks to their third straight national team championship.

"I've been there three times, so I really know what to expect," Sigman said. "I think the experience will be a big factor in helping me deal with the pressure. I'm feeling real confident and my conditioning feels great right now. I'm ready to go."

Sigman rolled to the title at the prestigious Midlands Championship this season, winning by major decision over No. 6 Matt Fields of Iowa in the finals. He owns a pair of wins in his career over Minnesota's Cole Konrad, an NCAA Division I runner-up who is ranked No. 1 this season.

The DII champ used to compete in the DI national meet, but that is no longer the case.

"Les could wrestle with any heavyweight in the country in any division," Minnesota State-Mankato coach Jim Makovsky said. "If he wrestled in the DI tournament he would place in the top three for sure and have a chance to maybe win it. He is so athletic and so tough on top. He's always in control and wrestles with great composure. He's amazing."

Sigman was not heavily recruited coming out of high school and signed with Nebraska-Omaha. He placed second at Senior Nationals. He competed at 197 pounds as a redshirt, took a medical redshirt the next season after suffering a knee injury and then moved up to heavyweight for his freshman season in 2002-03.

His early success in Division II made him a prime candidate to transfer to a Division I school, but Sigman fell in love with Omaha and elected to stay.

"It would be nice to measure myself against some of those guys in DI," he said, "but I've really enjoyed my career here. Plus I've gotten a chance to wrestle a lot of the top DI guys at the Midlands and (Nebraska-Omaha's) Kaufman-Brand Open."

Sigman hopes to become the first wrestler in Nebraska-Omaha's rich history to win it all four times.

"I try not to think about it too much, but it obviously would be a great accomplishment," Sigman said. "It's so hard to do because you have to stay healthy and stay consistent. The best part for me has been winning two national team titles. That's what it's all about - winning as a team."

When the quiet, soft-spoken Sigman wins - whether it's in an open tournament in November or in the national finals - he shows little emotion and simply slowly walks off the mat.

"Les is a class act all the way," UNO coach Mike Denney said. "He's not a guy who pumps his fist or jumps up and down, even when he wins a national title. There's certainly no arrogance about him at all. He's so humble. In this day and age, you don't see kids like that very often."

Sigman has developed a penchant for delivering in big matches. Needing a win in the final bout of the 2004 national meet to give the Mavericks the team title, Sigman won at heavyweight to push Nebraska-Omaha past top-ranked North Dakota State.

The 2005 NCAA meet also came down to the end. The Mavs clinched the team title in the second-to-last bout when Augustana's Tim Boldt fell to Shippensburg's Corey Jacoby at 197.

"I think Les was a little disappointed when Boldt didn't win," UNO assistant coach Ron Higdon said. "He wanted the team race to come down to his match again. He absolutely loves big matches and thrives in pressure situations."

Sigman has a knack for beating opponents worse each time he faces them. He makes a seven-minute match seem more like seven hours to opponents with his pressuring style that is built on superior conditioning.

He seems to become stronger as the match wears on, forcing opponents to wilt in the third period.

In three bouts with Tuscherer last year, Sigman won 1-0, 6-2 and 18-4.

"Les just owns the third period," said Marc Bauer, the coach at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. "His conditioning is so good that he just intimidates guys. He puts a lot of doubts in your mind when he wears you out. That's in the back of your mind when you face him again."

Sigman is still undecided on his future, but many coaches think he would thrive internationally in freestyle.

"He's great on his feet and has a great arsenal that makes him very tough to stop," Makovsky said. "I think he could do very well at that level. Very well."

Nebraska coach Mark Manning said Sigman could develop into a force in freestyle.

"All he needs is experience and a little time to get stronger and more physical to match up with some of the top guys at heavyweight," Manning said. "He has all the tools to be very good internationally. He's excellent on his feet, he works extremely hard and he has great composure. Once he gets a little experience, look out. He could be very, very tough."

Denney, who has led Nebraska-Omaha to three national titles and numerous other top-three finishes in 27 seasons, said he's never coached an athlete like Sigman.

"Les is one of the best I've ever seen at this level," Denney said. "He's truly been amazing. He seems to wrestle his very best when the stakes are the highest. He's meant so much to our program. He's a great leader who sets a great example with his work ethic and his attitude. He's truly been a gift for us. He's very special very special.
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