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Nebraska-Kearney's Tervel Dlagnev emerges as one of nation's top heavyweights

Tolly Thompson knows a talented heavyweight when he sees one.

The two-time U.S. World Team member and 2005 World Bronze Medalist in freestyle wrestling has battled some of the best big men on the planet.

And Thompson likes what he sees in 21-year-old heavyweight wrestler Tervel Dlagnev.

Dlagnev, a junior at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, not only has emerged as one of the best heavyweights in NCAA Division II. He's one of the top collegiate heavyweights in the country, regardless of division.

Dlagnev is ranked fourth nationally in the rankings that combine all collegiate divisions. He is 21-1 this season with 11 falls. Among his wins are victories over No. 4 Matt Fields of Iowa, No. 5 Ty Watterson of Oregon State, No. 6 Jon May of Nebraska and No. 10 Jared Rosholt of Oklahoma State. Six of his wins this season are over wrestlers ranked in the top 15 in Division I.

Dlagnev's only loss this season was to No. 2 Bode Ogunwole of Harvard in overtime in the finals of the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. Dlagnev won his 100th career match last weekend en route to being named Outstanding Wrestler of the UNK Loper Open.

"Tervel's a good wrestler," Thompson said. "He's a big guy who wrestles like a little guy. He shoots a lot of low singles, and he's real active and moves real well. He's a student of the sport and always wanting to get better. I think he will do real well internationally. He's going to be a force."

Dlagnev served as one of Thompson's training partners this past summer at a U.S. World Team Camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

"Tolly's awesome - he has helped me immensely," Dlagnev said. "He's a super nice guy and he's very smart. He's obviously a great wrestler. He won't take it easy on me and gives me everything he's got. He beats up on me pretty good when we wrestle, but he will help me and tell me how to improve in certain positions. He's been great."

Dlagnev also has trained with past NCAA champions Tommy Rowlands and Mark Munoz. Rowlands placed third at the U.S. World Team Trials earlier this year.

"I know wrestling those guys will help me improve," Dlagnev said. "I haven't been wrestling that long and I still have a lot to learn. I love it when top guys like that give me suggestions. Going to Colorado for the World Team Camp was a great experience. I learned a lot in that short span. It was amazing what they were teaching those guys and I tried to pick up as much as I could."

For now, Dlagnev is focused on his college career. He is one of the leaders on a Nebraska-Kearney team ranked second in Division II. Dlagnev placed sixth at the NCAA meet as a freshman before finishing second to four-time NCAA Division II champion Les Sigman of Nebraska-Omaha last season.

Dlagnev was 0-8 in his college career against Sigman, who is ranked fifth in the U.S. in freestyle at 120 kg/264.5 pounds. Sigman beat Dlagnev 1-0 in the NCAA Division II finals this past March.

"Going against Sigman, that helped push me a lot to get better," Dlagnev said. "I was always trying to raise my level against him."

Sigman won the Midlands Championships last year in Evanston, Ill., and Dlagnev was hoping to match his feat later this month. But Dlagnev said he tweaked his knee recently and may not be able to compete at the Midlands.

Dlagnev's rapid ascent to being a top heavyweight is impressive, especially when you consider he never competed in wrestling until his junior year in high school in Arlington, Texas.

Born in Bulgaria when it was still a Communist country, Dlagnev came to the United States with his parents when he was four years old. His family lived in California for a year before moving to Texas.

Dlagnev said phone conversations with his parents are interesting.

"My parents speak to me in Bulgarian and I speak to them in English, and somehow we can understand each other," Dlagnev said with a laugh. "I can speak Bulgarian if someone is speaking it to me, but I have always spoken mainly English since I've been here most of my life."

Dlagnev said he initially joined the wrestling team just to get in shape.

"I was a sophomore in high school and was a pudgy 220 pounds," he said. "I had never really played any sports. I was kind of heavier set and not real athletic. I saw the wrestlers running on the track and wanted to lose some weight, so I gave wrestling a try."

He not only dropped some pounds, he quickly developed a passion for the sport.

He placed fourth at the Texas state tournament as a junior and third as a senior at 215 pounds. He drew virtually no recruiting attention before winding up at Nebraska-Kearney, one of the nation's top Division II programs. Kearney is a small central Nebraska city of around 30,000 people.

"My brother, Andrew, was an assistant coach at Arlington High School," Nebraska-Kearney coach Marc Bauer said. "We were looking for some big guys and they recommended Tervel to us. Nobody was recruiting him."

That first year at Kearney, Dlagnev received a modest $600 scholarship for the entire school year.

"He has my top scholarship now," Bauer said with a laugh. "I give him everything I possibly can."

Dlagnev, who now competes at around 240 pounds, weighed 205 when he arrived in Kearney a little over three years ago. He began his career as a 184-pounder and placed second in his first college tournament, losing to two-time NCAA Division II champion Tom Meester of Augustana in the finals.

"Tervel's pretty fearless," Bauer said. "He came after Meester and shot right in on his leg. He ended up getting beat up pretty good, but he impressed me the way he didn't back down from anybody."

Dlagnev broke his foot later that season at the Lone Star Duals and ended up receiving a medical redshirt.

"That summer, we decided to beef Tervel up to heavyweight," Bauer said. "We already had (national champion) Jeff Sylvester at 197 and we thought heavyweight would be a good fit for Tervel. He got up to about 230 that summer."

Dlagnev excels off the mat as well. He majors in molecular biology with an emphasis in pre-pharmacy. He carries a 3.4 grade-point average and is a two-time Academic All-American.

Bauer said Dlagnev's style is unusual for a heavyweight.

"Tervel shoots low singles, ankle picks, high crotches, duck unders and just picks guys apart," Bauer said. "He has quick hands and quick feet. He's very athletic for a heavyweight. He can get through and past a guy before you even know it. He has so much drive and desire. He wants to wrestle those top guys and he's fearless.

"He's such an amazing young man who has an unbelievable attitude. He continually wants to get better. He's meant so much to our program. He's just a great kid."

Dlagnev's style comes from watching lightweight wrestlers compete.

"I've always loved the way they fire in so quickly and finish their shots," he said. "I try to wrestle like a smaller guy where I shoot in on my opponent's legs and try to keep them off-balance."

Dlagnev said Kearney has been a perfect fit for him.

"I really like it here - it's a great place and a great community," he said. "It's a lot different from a big city. The people are really nice and I definitely love it here. It feels like home to me now."

Once he finishes college, Dlagnev said he likely will continue to wrestle.

"I definitely would like to try competing internationally," he said. "I want a chance to measure myself against some of the top guys."

He was born in Bulgaria, but Dlagnev is an American citizen. In addition to Thompson, the U.S. has a handful of top heavyweights in freestyle that include 2006 U.S. World Team Trials runner-up Steve Mocco along with Rowlands, NCAA champion Cole Konrad of Minnesota and Sigman.

"Tervel's goal is to make a World Team and possibly the Olympics," Bauer said. "If he keeps working hard and improving, I think that's a realistic goal."

For now, Dlagnev is hoping to lead the Lopers to their first NCAA tournament title this season. Nebraska-Kearney was second last year behind three-time defending champion Nebraska-Omaha. The NCAA Division II meet will be in Kearney this season on March 9-10.

"Everyone's pumped about this season," he said. "Wrestling at home is so relaxing and there's a comfort level there. We think we have a really good shot at doing well."
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