By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Jacob Warner is in a good place heading into his first NCAA Wrestling Championships.
If you need proof, look at his final match (for third place at 197 pounds) at the Big Ten Championships against Eric Schultz of Nebraska. Three things that could have derailed a run-of-the-mill competitor occurred in Warner’s bout against Schultz.
Warner overcame all three.
He was taken down late in the first period. He was ridden for the final 35 seconds of the first period. With a second left in regulation, Schultz escaped to tie the score, 5-5.
“Probably back in December or January, if I would have given up that escape in the third period, I would have been down on myself and frustrated,” Warner admitted.
Not anymore. The redshirt freshman from Tolono, Illinois, cleared his head and secured a takedown 21 seconds into sudden victory to win, 7-5.
“He never panicked and never jettisoned his game plan,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said. “He kept doing the things he is best at — there wasn’t panic like, ‘Oh I have to make this up in one move.’ He stayed in there and wrestled seven minutes.”
Warner brings a record of 17-4 into the NCAA Tournament at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh on March 21-23. A big stage? Certainly. But Warner’s resume includes success at Fargo, the Illinois State Championships, Cadet World Championships, Ivan Yariguin. He was a Junior World Team member.
“The only thing that is different is (the NCAA Championships are) bigger and tougher, other than that, it’s just another tournament,” Warner said. “It means more than the past ones, because it’s the next best thing or the next thing up. I have to go out there and wrestle.”
During one stretch of the season, Warner won nine consecutive matches. He went 3-1 at the Big Ten Championships and his only loss — 5-2 to Kollin Moore of Ohio State — was as telling as the three victories.
“Warner answered some questions about if he is in the conversation at 197 and I think he is,” Brands said. “I think he answered that question.”
Moore entered the 2018 NCAA Championships as the top seed; he placed fourth. His only two losses this season are to top-seeded Bo Nickal of Penn State. As the fifth seed, Warner will open Thursday against Drew Phipps of Bucknell.
“I have to trust my offense and know I can wrestle and score from any position,” Warner said. “I can’t get rattled if I give up a takedown or a last-second escape in a period. It can’t veer me off the path to success.”
In Warner, Brands sees a competitor who continues to improve. He is one of six freshman or sophomore Hawkeyes competing in Pittsburgh. It is the first postseason for Warner, Max Murin (141), and Kaleb Young (157).
The environment won’t bother someone with Warner’s pedigree. What he anticipates most is experiencing the three-day ride with teammates.
“I’m looking forward to competing with my team,” Warner said. “Competing for a team title, a national title. We all want to win it.”