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Mark Manning says Saturday’s Big 12 Championship meet at the NU Coliseum is the wrestling equivalent of a BCS Bowl game, and Nebraska’s head coach can’t help but see an extra sparkle in the eyes of four of his 10 starters.
Redshirt freshman Andy Pokorny (125), redshirt sophomore Matt Vacanti (133), senior Brandon Browne (174) and junior Craig Brester (197) have extra incentive to perform before what’s expected to be a near sellout crowd and a regional television audience on Fox Sports Midwest.
All four are native Nebraskans – Pokorny, a three-time state champion from Bennington; Vacanti, a four-time state champion from Papillion; Brown, a two-time state champion from Plattsmouth; and Brester, a two-time state champion from Howells.
Interestingly, Brown (24-3) and Brester (27-3), a pair of walk-ons, are two of the three highest ranked wrestlers on Nebraska’s fourth-ranked team.
“They epitomize what this program is all about,” Manning said of Brester, who’s ranked second nationally and Brown, who, like 157-pound teammate Jordan Burroughs (28-0), is ranked third nationally.
“Brandon and Craig are walk-ons whose stories are similar to the ones you always hear about in football,” Manning said. “They weren’t the most talented guys when they walked into the room, but they’ve developed themselves through great commitment and sheer heart. They’re just hard-working, down-to-earth young men who reflect those good, old-fashioned, Midwestern values.
From Walk-Ons to All-Americans, Title Contenders
“They’ve made themselves better and are absolute joys to coach,” Manning said. “They’ve worked hard to become All-Americans and have a good chance not only to win a Big 12 individual title, but an NCAA championship as well.”
Manning says both Brown and Brester now belong in the same gifted category as Bryan Snyder, Nebraska’s only four-time Big 12 champion (1999-2000-2001-2002) who also won All-America honors four times.
“I say that only because Bryan Snyder came here (from Easton, Pa.) as the top 134-pound recruit in the country,” Manning said. “Don’t get me wrong. Bryan was a joy to coach, too. I’m just saying there’s more than one way to get to the top, and Brandon and Craig have both come up the hard way. Brandon’s already won a Big 12 title (last year), and Craig has a great chance to win this weekend after finishing second as a freshman and sophomore.”
Brester can’t help but chuckle when he hears his name in the same sentence with Snyder’s. “I was in grade school when I started coming to Lincoln to see Brad Vering wrestle,” he said. “Since he was from Howells, he was the No. 1 figure for me, but I was always asking Bryan Snyder for his autograph, too. I’d come to every dual and ask him to sign something again and again and again.”
Now, Brester is the one whose name is on the marquee. The two-time Academic All-Big 12 first-team selection and 2008 All-American is now looking up to only one wrestler. Iowa State’s Jake Varner is ranked No. 1 nationally at 197. Brester is ranked second, and Missouri’s Max Askren is ranked fourth.
All three are juniors, so something has to give Saturday. “I’ve been in the Big 12 finals the last two years, but I haven’t won a Big 12 championship yet,” said Brester, who estimates that more than 100 fans will make the trip to Lincoln from his hometown.
“Maybe our fans will get wild and crazy and get the Coliseum going like they do for volleyball games,” Brester said with a laugh. “That would be cool.”
Huskers Are Used to ‘Sticking Our Nose in There’
Five of the top 11 NCAA wresters in Brester’s weight class are in the Big 12. “Like Coach Manning says, Saturday is a mini-national tournament,” Brester said. “That’s what’s so great about this conference. We wrestle tough guys and tough teams every week, so we know we can stick our nose in there and wrestle anyone. It’s just a matter of going out there now and being disciplined enough – and tough enough – to lay it all on the line.”
Manning’s intense practices are designed to make sure that happens. By the time they’re over, even the head coach is sweating because some of his instructional pointers become live physical contact.
No wonder Brester had battle scars on his left eye Tuesday. “We go at it hard here,” he said. “I’ve been wrestling different guys all week. Romero Cotton’s athleticism has definitely helped me. So have Josh Ihnen and Cameron Browne. All of them push me hard, and we’re just now starting to taper off for the tournament.”
Nebraska athletic officials announced Wednesday that nearly 2,500 Big 12 wrestling tickets have been sold in advance. “With a nice walk-up crowd, we might push 3,500,” said Nebraska Associate Athletic Director Bob Burton. “Capacity is 4,000, so it should be a great atmosphere.”
And feature great wrestling. “Over the last four or five years, the Big 12 has been the toughest conference wrestling tournament in the country,” Manning said. “Fans will definitely get their money’s worth. When they come to this meet, they’ll see several potential world and Olympic champions. This is a great time for the Big 12 to showcase wrestling, and here we have it right in our own backyard. We’re going to end up with more than 37 national qualifiers. If I was a betting man, I’d be all in on that one.”
Cyclones Favored Over Huskers, Tigers
Third-ranked Iowa State is favored, but the fourth-ranked Huskers and fifth-ranked Missouri have enough talent to challenge the Cyclones. “It’s going to be a dogfight,” Manning predicted. “There will be big matches right out of the gate. In some classes, it’s going to be a war for fourth and fifth seeds not only because they’ll help determine who wins the tournament, but also because of who goes to nationals.”
In Brester’s weight class, all five wrestlers already have qualified for nationals, so it’s more a matter of seeding than the pressure to qualify.
Pokorny (9-16) and Vacanti (18-14) will be bucking considerable odds to qualify, but both young Huskers are at least healthy.
Last season, heart problems sidelined Pokorny, and an anterior crucial ligament knee injury forced Vacanti to redshirt.
“I’m just excited to compete,” Vacanti said. “Like Craig, Brandon and Andy, I’ve been a die-hard Husker since I was a little kid. We’re all living our dreams, and all we can do is the very best we can.”