At the start of every season, Elmhurst wrestling coach Steve Marianetti maps out the same two goals for his squad—capture a College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) championship and bring home a team trophy from the NCAA Championships with a top-four national finish.
The Bluejays checked off the first of those two goals in late February with a dominating performance at the CCIW Championships. Elmhurst rolled to its third consecutive conference title by a 52-point margin, capturing the team’s sixth conference championship in the last nine years. Nine Bluejays advanced to the championship finals and six Bluejays brought home individual conference crowns.
With the CCIW title out of the way, Marianetti and the Bluejays can focus on the next goal—adding some hardware to the R.A. Faganel Hall display case.
“Winning a CCIW Championship is always an important milestone for our program,” said the five-time CCIW Coach of the Year and the NWCA National Coach of the Year in 2007. “We prepare awfully hard for the CCIW Championship, but now that we have that out of the way, we’ll turn our focus to the NCAA Championships.”
In Marianetti’s 11 years as the Elmhurst head coach, the Bluejays have scored five top-10 national finishes, but have come up just short in capturing a team trophy at the NCAA Championships. Marianetti believes that his 2013 squad possess the talent to bring home a trophy that has eluded the program.
“From top to bottom, this is the strongest team we’ve had in my 11 years at Elmhurst,” said Marianetti. “We have a senior driven team that is extremely talented and capable of big things, but we have our work cut out for us.”
The tough work for the Bluejays began the NCAA Division III Midwest Regional where five Bluejays secured top-three finishes to advance to the NCAA Championships. Elmhurst, which hosted the regional at R.A. Faganel Hall, had to battle through four of the nation’s top-10 teams at the NCAA Regional.
“The new regional system that has been put in place this year is great,” said Marianetti. “The NCAA has eliminated the wild card entry system into the championships. While we were happy to see the new changes, I believe we hosted the toughest regional in the nation. There are some very talented wrestlers both on our team and other squads who came up short in the regional, and as a result won’t be able to compete at the NCAA Championships. “
Marianetti’s squad at the NCAA Championships features five wrestlers ranked in the top-10 of their respective weight class. Two-time All-American Joe Rau is the nation’s top ranked wrestler at 184 pounds. The Elmhurst senior placed third at the NCAA Championships and hasn’t lost to a Division III wrestler this season. Senior Dalton Bullard, an All-American in 2012, is ranked third in the nation at 133 pounds while senior Ryan Earley is ranked third at 141 pounds while holding an undefeated 27-0 record.
Senior transfer Mike Benefiel is ranked fourth in the nation at 197 pounds while sophomore Miguel Venecia is ranked seventh at 125 pounds. Both Benefiel and Venecia took third at the NCAA Midwest Regional to earn their trip to the NCAA Championships.
According to Marianetti, it will probably take a minimum of four All-Americans (the top eight wrestlers at each weight class at the NCAA Championships are named All-Americans) to score a top-four finish. The Bluejays previous best for All-Americans in a season is three.
“I truly believe that we have the talent to earn a top-four finish,” he said.
“We’re in line to have several All-Americans and possibly even multiple national champions,” he said. “Last season, we sent five wrestlers to the NCAA Championships, and they competed well, but they were inexperienced at competing against the nation’s top wrestlers. This year, our five wrestlers have competed against some of the top wrestlers in the nation and performed at an elite level. We’re going to need them to continue that elite level performance if we want to have a strong national finish.”
The NCAA Championships will be held on March 15-16 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Fans can follow the Bluejays’ performance at www.elmhurstbluejays.com.