Randy York's N-sider
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Mark Manning is a believer in dreaming big, and Nebraska's head wrestling coach can't get a certain picture out of his mind this week. It's a mental image of Stephen Dwyer and Craig Brester on motorcycles, riding off into the sunset with NCAA national championship wrestling medals around their necks.
"They would definitely be riding off with their motorcycles instead of horses," Manning said with a laugh. "As much as this sport has engulfed their lives, they would deserve a finish like that. They're two of the hardest workers we've ever had in our program. They're humble guys with big hearts, great values and a tremendous work ethic. They give you their all, and that's all any coach can ever ask. They're class acts. Both epitomize what Nebraska wrestling is all about."
Manning describes Dwyer and Brester as tough guys who are willing to stay another half hour after the most grueling of practices. "They're old-school," Manning said. "Craig grew up on the farm. He's sorted hogs, so you know why he learned that what doesn't kill you will only make you stronger. Stephen grew up the hard way, too, and has earned everything he's gotten. They're throwbacks, real iron men."
Dwyer says he came to Lincoln looking up to and respecting Brester. "He doesn't expect anything to be given to him," Dwyer said. "I also learned at a very young age that talent wasn't going to get it done for me. I'm a decent athlete, but not god's gift to speed or strength. My gifts have always been mental attitude and work ethic, and that's never changed."
Dwyer arrived at Nebraska on scholarship, one year after Brester walked on. Now they've both reached the crossroads of their careers in Omaha, where sellout crowds at the Qwest Center will no doubt find some favor for two young Huskers who have invested their lives in pursuit of NCAA excellence.
Brester, the No. 2 seed at 197 pounds, is chasing his holy grail in the same weight class with Iowa State's top-ranked Jake Varner. Brester beat Varner a year ago for the Big 12 title in Lincoln, but lost to him in the NCAA championship match in St. Louis. "Since I've been here, my goal has been to win a national championship," Brester said. "That's a choice I made, and I'm ready to keep pursuing that goal with everything I have."
Former Walk-on Could Be Nation's Top Wrestler
Brester and Varner couldn't have taken more divergent paths to the top of their weight class. As a walk-on, Brester started his career at the bottom and worked his way to national prominence. Varner, considered the nation's No. 1 recruit in high school, walked across five-star ground all the way to Ames. He won his first national title after finishing second twice.
The reigning Big 12 champion, Dwyer is the No. 4 seed at 174 pounds. He has never finished higher than eighth at the Division I Championships. "It's always seemed like I come up short of my big goals," he said. "I've never won a national championship, but that's still my No. 1 goal."
For Brester, the distance between silver and gold medals has been a simple matter of riding time at least twice against Varner, a USA world team member who has won significant matches internationally."It's a mindset," Brester said. "A lot of little things go into a close decision."
For Dwyer, the distance is greater, but not the gap you might think. "It seems like I have something right in my fingers, but I've never been able to grab it and take it," he said. "I really want to break that habit in Omaha. I have the mindset to win. I feel like I can beat anybody."
By now, you understand the parallels for two tough-minded Huskers. "Craig and Stephen are not complainers. They're doers," Manning said, explaining why he wants his own versions of John Wayne to ride off into a golden Nebraska sunset on those bikes that help them process all the blood, sweat and tears they've left on a wrestling mat.
"It's definitely a stress release for both Craig and me," Dwyer said. "My mom's a nurse and she's not crazy about me riding a motorcycle, but Craig and I both enjoy just getting out during the off-season, jumping on our bikes and riding just about anywhere."
A 3.9 GPA in Mechanized Systems Management
Outside of wrestling, "Riding a motorcycle is what I enjoy most - it's a lot of fun," Brester said, admitting that he's moving up from his Honda cruiser to a Harley as a reward for his upcoming spring graduation and his 3.9 GPA in Mechanized Systems Management.
Dwyer will get his degree in December in Business Administration, so he's hoping he might become a graduate assistant in wrestling and pursue his master's degree at the same time he can watch his brother, 2010 NU recruit Matt Dwyer, compete as a freshman.
The future will have to wait until after these two Husker seniors exhaust their eligibility. Right now, they are consumed by what it will take to win a national title.
Both are seasoned enough to know that they can't look past any early match to win at the end. Still, if all goes according to plan, championship matches have to be part of their mindset and an inherent piece of their strategy.
Asked to share their 3-point strategies to win, here's what Brester thinks he has to do to climb the medal stand:
"To beat Varner, I have to take him down, and that's a lot easier said than done," Brester said with a chuckle before deciding that "taking him down is Point No. 1 and Point No. 2. That's what our match will come down to ... me being able to take him down. Point No. 3 is staying focused the whole match. At Iowa State, I slowed down and let him get a takedown at the end of the match. I didn't do the things our coaches have instilled in me."
Dwyer's Goal: Listen to His Coaches and Wrestle Smarter
Dwyer pleads guilty to the same offense. "For me, Point No. 1 has to be to wrestle smarter," he said. "I've made some bad strategic decisions that have cost me important matches. I don't want to repeat that process. Point No. 2 is to compete more relaxed. You can't break that barrier when you're too tight and want it too much. Point No. 3 is to rely on my coaches to keep me in the right positions to win. If I'm wrapped up in the match, and they tell me what I need to do strategically, then that's what I need to do."
Preparation and strategy, not motorcycles, are the biggest things that tie these seniors together this weekend. How else do you explain the mutually reinforcing Brester and Dwyer becoming Nebraska's first duo in nine years to hit the career 100-win club in the same season?
In yet another example of ironic timing, both poster-worthy seniors have younger brothers who won their own state high school wrestling championships last month. Cory Brester, a junior at Howells, won a state championship in Nebraska, and Matt Dwyer, a senior, won the Illinois state title at 215 pounds on the same day that Dwyer won historic match No. 100 as a Husker.
Stephen Dwyer and Craig Brester have sizable numbers of friends and family who bought tickets to watch their collegiate farewell in Omaha.
Brester, though, has a regional following that would probably rival any individual fan following in NCAA wrestling history. In mid-February, when he went to watch his brother at district competition in Stanton, Neb., the gym was packed, and Brester was introduced to the crowd before the finals. To no one's surprise, Howells' latest wrestling legend received a standing ovation.
"It was super cool," he said. "They announced my record and mentioned how I would represent Howells at the NCAA's in Omaha."
Brester remembers his dad telling him to think about all those fans who cheered for him in Stanton and how many of them are making the trip to Omaha.
A Hard-Core Group Supporting a Tough-Minded Wrestler
Howells brought 300 fans to the NU Coliseum for Brester's Hometown Husker Day, and he figures that same group plans to follow him in Omaha. But there will be many more, judging by the people who talked to him in Stanton.
Brester said fans from Winside, Randolph, Oakland-Craig, West Point, Scribner, Osmond, Elgin and Elkhorn Valley came up to him at the high school meet to tell him that they'd be in Omaha.
Yes, Nebraska high school wrestling fans have become savvy college wrestling fans, and there's a small army eager to see Brester complete his lifelong dream.
Brester, of course, grew up watching fellow Howells native Brad Vering become one of the best wrestlers in the world. "I was awestruck every time I went to the Coliseum to watch him," he recalled.
Now, it's his turn, not to mention his last chance on center stage in his home state.
Husker Nation will be there watching in person and following on TV and Huskers.com. "If I were in Mongolia I would be pumped up to watch this tournament," Manning said, adding that fortunately, the tournament "happens to be in Omaha."
Let's just hope that sometime soon, when the curtain goes down on two productive careers, Craig Brester and Stephen Dwyer can climb on their bikes for the ride of their lives - the perfect celebration for what would most certainly be the tournament of their lives.
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Voices from Husker Nation
I don't ever remember following college wrestling very closely, but this article has convinced me to jump on my computer tonight while NCAA basketball is on the tube, so I can watch these two worthy Huskers battle their way to the finals. I will admit that today was the first time I ever checked NCAA wrestling results on the Internet. My compliments to the way you've packaged your coverage, allowing us to keep track of the action. Brian Anderson, Scottsdale, Arizona
I watched Stephen Dwyer and Craig Brester tonight in their NCAA semifinal matches on ESPNU. What courage, guts and determination they showed. Brester scores late to beat the nation's No. 3 wrestler, 1-0. Dwyer loses a heartbreaker, 3-2, to an unbeaten, top-ranked wrestler. No matter what happens Saturday, I think they deserve that memorable ride into the sunset. Husker Nation is proud of both graduating seniors. Like Mark Manning said, when you give your all, that's all any coach can ask. Just watching them compete, I could see why he called them tough guys with big hearts. Lonnie Irvine, Cheyenne, Wyoming