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By DARREN MILLER
PITTSBURGH — His season over, Kaleb Young sat atop a stool in front of an NCAA Wrestling Championships backdrop in a tunnel in PPG Paints Arena. It is a seat earmarked for wrestlers who are victorious in final placement matches the NCAA Championships.
“I feel good about (placing fifth), but I still have to get better this offseason so I can work my way up even higher,” said Young, a sophomore 157-pounder for the University of Iowa.
Meanwhile, junior Pat Lugo sat alone on a chair in Iowa’s team camp, far away from cameras and microphones. He was still dressed in full workout attire with the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head.
“I want this to sting,” Lugo said minutes after an 11-9 loss to Iowa State’s Jarrett Degan that left him in eighth place in the 149-pound bracket.
Session V isn’t where any of the 330 wrestlers who started the NCAA Championships on Thursday wants to be. They all want to spend their third day here preparing for Session VI — the finals — reserved for the final two wrestlers in each 33-man weight class.
But in the “Get the Next Best Thing” mindset, Young and Lugo joined teammates Austin DeSanto, Alex Marinelli, and Jacob Warner on Saturday morning, climbing as high up the awards podium as possible. For Young, that was fifth; for Lugo it was eighth.
“I’m happy with it, but I’m not satisfied with where I am because I still need to get better in a lot of positions and a lot of situations,” Young said. “I’m ready to get more.”
It is no consolation to Lugo that he entered the championships seeded 10th and outperformed his seed by two. He was looking for more than a 3-3 record in the Steel City.
“(Being an All-American) is something you have to take pride in, but it is definitely not what I work for,” Lugo said. “I didn’t come here to be an All-American; I came here for one thing and one thing only, and that is to be a national champ.”
One of the more seasoned postseason wrestlers on the roster, Lugo was making his third trip to the NCAA Championships. His first two came when he competed for Edinboro in 2016 and 2017. He didn’t place either time. A big difference this season, he said, were teammates, who Lugo credits for lifting him after a quarterfinal loss to Ohio State’s Micah Jordan on Friday.
“They helped me push through,” Lugo said. “We feed off each other a little bit; when one of us goes down, we all feel it. When one of us wins, we all feel it. My brothers helped me get through this tournament and that was the biggest difference.”
On the opposite side of the postseason experience spectrum is Young, a first-time qualifier who joins DeSanto, Lugo, and Warner as first-time All-Americans. Last year at this time, Young was sitting in the stands in Cleveland, watching the action. He had a record of 9-7 as a redshirt freshman, closing the season with three straight losses at 174.
“Watching last year sucked,” Young said. “I was there (physically), but mentally I was kind of sad, not where I wanted to be at all. I knew I had to work hard and improve to get where I needed to be.”
This season he was competing at the NCAA Championships and opened with three wins to reach the semifinals, assuring All-America status. After a 5-2 loss to finalist Tyler Berger of Nebraska, Young went 1-1 on Saturday and earned fifth after his second overtime win over Midlands champion Ryan Deakin of Northwestern. Deakin defeated Young, 6-2, in the Midlands finals Dec. 30.
“I think I became more mature of a wrestler, more mentally in matches,” Young said. “I don’t let things bother me as much. I keep working and trying to get the next point and I think it’s paying off.”
Young went 4-2 in his first NCAA Championships to finish the season 24-7. Both NCAA finalists at 157 are from the Big Ten Conference.
“You are wrestling the best guys throughout the season,” Young said. “I have already wrestled the best guys in my weight class, so going into the final stretch of postseason, you know what you have coming and you’re ready to go.”
The Big Ten has 12 NCAA finalists — nine more than any other conference — including two at Lugo’s weight class as well. Lugo finished his first season as a Hawkeye with a record of 23-10.
“I love this place, I love Iowa City, the fans, and coaches” Lugo said. “I love my brothers, my teammates. I couldn’t ask for a better place to be. This is my home and I’m happy to be here.”