Of the nine wrestlers who qualified for nationals, five were champions, three placed as runner-up and one placed third.
The champions include, sophomore Riley Loveless at 141 pounds, sophomore Justin Polkowske at 149 pounds, redshirt sophomore Matthew Widdicombe at 174 pounds, freshman Jeffrey Oakes at 197 pounds and redshirt freshman Anau at 285 pounds.
Placing second were freshman Taylor Jeffries at 133 pounds, sophomore Andrew VonRein at 165 pounds and sophomore Heber Shepherd at 184 pounds; sophomore Cameron Braden, meanwhile, placed third at 157 pounds.
The top three placers in each weight class qualified to compete in the NJCAA National Championship in Council Bluffs, Iowa Feb. 24 and 25.
As a team, Northwest scored 107.5 points to claim the championship title over Otero Junior College’s 92 points. Placing third was Western Wyoming College (WWC) with 70 points and Northwest Kansas Technical College (NKTC) came in fourth with 42.5 points. Placing fifth out of the five teams was Northeastern Junior College (NEJC) with 36.5 points.
Nine of NWC’s 10 wrestlers were seeded in the top two places going into the qualifier, which meant their first match of the day was the semi-final round, which began at noon.
Because of this late start time, Coach Zeigler felt many of his wrestlers came out flat against their first opponents.
Lisiate Anau, 197 pounds
Heavyweight wrestler Anau from Sugar City, Idaho had the most exciting match of the night during the championship round, facing off against the No. 2 nationally ranked wrestler, Odgerek Batkhishig of NKTC. The match between the two heavyweights was close all the way. They were tied at three points at the end of the first, but at 6:27, Anau pinned Batkhishig for the upset victory.
Earlier this season, Anau faced off against the top-ranked wrestler, Thomas Petersen of Iowa Central, and lost. After that match, Petersen told Anau he was the toughest competitor he’d wrestled against, and those words have encouraged Anau since then.
Anau said that he was nervous going into the match, but as the match continued, his confidence built to a realization that he could beat the nation’s second-ranked wrestler.
Anau advanced to the championship match by taking a 7-2 decision over WWC’s Wade French.
The heavyweight’s family came to watch Anau wrestle for the first time this season at the NJCAA Rocky Mountain District qualifier tournament. Anau was grateful to his family, four of his six siblings, mother and mom’s boyfriend, for making the trek to Powell from Idaho to watch him.
Riley Loveless, 141 pounds
Loveless of Payson, Utah, took the 141-pound semi-final match over James Taylor of NKTC by a 7-0 decision to advance to the championship match. Loveless started the final bout by scoring two points with a takedown of Lane Hunt of WWC; he’d go on to hold Hunt scoreless and claim a 9-0 major decision victory for the championship.
Zeigler said that while Loveless’s matches might not be exciting, he’s solid throughout them.
Justin Polkowske, 149 pounds
Next came the 149-pound weight class, where Polkowske won by medical forfeit over Anthony Hinkle of Otero. Polkowske made it into the championship match with a close 9-8 victory over Samuel Freeman of WWC. Polkowske is from Torrington.
Matthew Widdicombe, 174 pounds
Powell native Widdicombe won both of his matches of the day by pin. The first came at 4:29 over Patrick Holtzhauser of NEJC in the semi-final round. In the championship, Widdicombe faced Matt Hebel of WWC. At the end of the first period, the score was 0-0. For the second period, Widdicombe chose down and got an escape to take a 1-0 lead going into the third period. In the third period, Hebel made a slight mistake and Widdicombe capitalized to get a pin at 6:46.
Zeigler added that Widdicombe ended his career as a redshirt sophomore wrestler at NWC on a high note, having won the Apodaca Award and then being champion in the 174-pound weight class. Zeigler also thinks Widdicombe is undefeated in the NWC Cabre Gym.
Jeffrey Oakes, 197 pounds
At 197 pounds, Oakes from Battle Mountain, Nevada, beat Jered Smith of Otero in the semi-final match by a 13-1 major decision to advance to championship round. In the championship round, Oakes and Apsen Naylor of WWC met for the fifth time this season. Heading into this face off between the two, the record was tied with each having won two. The score was tied at 0 after the first period but Oakes took the lead, 5-1 going into the third period and won by a 19-7 major decision.
Taylor Jeffries, 133 pounds
Also wrestling in the championship round was 133-pound-Jeffries from Gillette. In the semi-final round, Jeffries met Andrew Astle of WWC. After the first period the score was 0-0. To start the second period, Astle chose down and got an escape. But before the period was over, Jeffries got a takedown to take a 2-1 lead going into the third period. Jeffries won the match with a 9-3 decision to advance to the championship match.
In the championship match, Gunner Laffoon of Otero won by a 1-0 decision. With a 0-0 score with about 47 seconds left in the second period, the Otero coaches challenged the officials’ call of a no takedown. The challenge was won to give Laffoon one point, which would end up being the victory point.
Andrew VonRein, 165 pounds
VonRein of Lander was runner-up after losing by a 21-5 tech fall to No. 1 ranked Zachary Beard of Otero for the championship. In the semi-final match, VonRein pinned Ryan Winger of WWC in 5:59.
Beard wrestled as a true freshman for the University of Wyoming during the 2013-2014 season with 28 victories, 13 of which came by pin. He was a four-time state champion in Oklahoma in high school. After his season with the Cowboys, Beard kind of dropped off the map before resurfacing this season to wrestle for Otero.
Heber Shepherd, 184 pounds
In the 184-pound weight class, Shepherd from Spanish Fork, Utah, lost by a 6-4 decision to Anthony Lodermeier of Otero in the championship match. Shepherd led 4-1 going into the second period. In the semi-final match, Shepherd pinned Turah Reed of NKTC in 2:46.
Cameron Braden, 157 pounds
Placing third was 157-pound wrestler Braden of Moorcroft. In the semi-final round, Braden lost to Anthony Curtis of NEJC by a 6-0 decision. The loss put Braden into the consolation semi-final round against Rashawn Benford of Otero. Braden won by a 11-2 major decision to advance to the third-place match. There, Braden faced Kenny Astle of WWC. In the Apodaca Dual Showdown on Jan. 27, Braden rallied to beat Astle in the third period. This matchup was no different, as Braden came back from a 6-1 deficit after the first period to tie the match at 6-all and force overtime.
In the first overtime period, the wrestlers start in a neutral position (both standing up facing each other) and the first person to score wins in a sudden victory. Braden scored two points for a takedown for a 8-6 sudden victory win.
Zeigler said that the 157-pound weight class was the toughest weight class at the tournament and if the tournament was to be held again, the top three wrestlers could be different.
Mathew Barfuss, 125 pounds
Also wrestling for NWC in the qualifier was Mathew Barfuss in the 125-pound weight class. Barfuss was seeded fifth going into the tournament and lost two matches to finish fifth at the tournament. Morgan Fogg of NEJC won by a 3-5 decision in the quarterfinal round. Barfuss received a bye in the first consolation round, then lost by a 16-5 major decision to Fabian Guerrero of NKTC in the consolation semi-final round.
Zeigler said Barfuss, who is a sophomore from Bancroft, Idaho, can be proud of his finish. Though he didn’t make it to nationals, Zeigler said the wrestler has succeeded in other aspects — including being a top student at NWC, majoring in engineering. Barfuss also met a personal goal of placing first in all the team’s running drills at practice; the drills included running from the NWC campus to the Powell airport on Polecat Bench.
Zeigler also wanted to give a special thanks to George and Kelly Laughlin for running the NJCAA Rocky Mountain District Qualifier. The event ran smoothly and Zeigler said he couldn’t imagine running a tournament without their help.
Thanks was also given to the team’s two assistant coaches, Mak Jones and Cody Vichi. Both wrestled under coach Zeigler and he said their help throughout this season has been tremendous and very much appreciated.
Besides the top three finishers in each weight classes, five wildcard wrestlers were chosen by the coaches at the conclusion of the qualifier.
Otero also had nine wrestlers qualify for nationals, WWC qualified eight and NKTC six, while three wrestlers from NEJC qualified.