Howells is at the Heart of NCAA Wrestling Storyline
NCAA Wrestling on Television
ESPNU is televising both sessions of Friday’s NCAA wrestling matches. ESPNU also will telecast the Championship Medal Round on Saturday, at 11 a.m., while ESPN will air the finals at 8:30 p.m. During the Championship Round, the referees will wear microphones, providing fans with even more access to and understanding of the action.
By Randy York, Associate Athletic Director Buried in the ubiquitous avalanche of the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball championship tournaments this weekend is another event of national significance for Nebraska fans – the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at a sold-out Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
The Huskers have several storylines with great potential, and one of the most intriguing is the fifth-ranked team’s connection to a village in Colfax County, Nebraska, that lies 40 miles southeast of Norfolk, 40 miles northeast of Columbus, 40 miles northwest of Fremont, 80 miles northwest of Omaha and 85 miles north of Lincoln.
We’re talking about Howells, a tiny, but proud community of 632 people, 281 households and 182 families.
A pair of life-long friends and fellow Howells natives will be positioned in opposite corners of the mat in Friday’s 197-pound NCAA quarterfinals. In one corner will be Nebraska sophomore Craig Brester. In the other corner will be former Husker All-American Brad Vering, who will be coaching American University’s Josh Glenn, the defending 197-pound national champion.
Even though he’s seeded eighth, Brester has regional and national prominence. A month ago, he earned Big 12 Conference Wrestler of the Week honors and was named national Wrestler of the Week by TheMat.com, the official website of USA Wrestling.
Considered the premier amateur wrestler in the United States, Vering was a 2004 Olympian, 2000 NCAA champion, three-time All-American and two-time Big 12 champion. He is a finalist for the 2007 James E. Sullivan Award, an honor given each year to the nation’s top amateur athlete. One of nine finalists for the Sullivan Award, Vering represents wrestling after leading his U.S. Greco-Roman team (at 185 pounds) to its first ever-world title last year.
Vering is the world’s second-ranked wrestler at 84 kilograms (behind Russian Olympic Champion Aleksey Mishin), so his sights are firmly set on winning a gold medal in this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing, China. But his most pressing business is this weekend in St. Louis. Last year, the Vering-coached Glenn beat Brester on his way to the national title, and he must beat the Howells native again Friday if he is to repeat as champion.
“It’s strange, but true. It’s a tangled web I’m in, and it tears me apart,” Vering admitted. “My roots with Howells go back even further than my own career. My brother, Russ, started for Nebraska at 190 in the early ‘90s. He wrestled when (2000 Olympic Gold Medal Champion) Rulon Gardner was here.”
Vering was not surprised when Brester became Nebraska’s third starter from Howells at 197 since the early 1990s. “I’ve helped coach Craig in wrestling since he was five years old,” Vering said. “I worked with him in high school when he was a three-time state champion, and I continue to talk to him on the phone. In the past I’ve asked him to help me work my wrestling camps during the summers in Howells, and he’s been a great clinician. We’ve drawn 65 to 100 kids
Brad Vering won the NCAA title at 197 pounds in 2000.
to those camps, and Craig is one of the reasons why.”
The Bresters and the Verings, two prominent farm-related families in Howells, have known each other and supported each other for years.
The only thing that will supersede their mutual respect in St. Louis will be their competiveness.
“Craig is a great young man, and I love him to death,” Vering said. “It’s hard to coach his arch-nemesis, but I’ve been down this twisted kind of road before.”
Rewind the film to 2000. Mark Cody, an assistant wrestling coach in Vering’s first four years at Nebraska, helped coach him to his only NCAA championship as a junior. Oklahoma State hired Cody away from Nebraska, and Vering failed to repeat his national title as a senior. “Guess who beat me?” asked Vering. “It was an Oklahoma State wrestler who was coached by Mark Cody.”
The irony does not end there. The American University head coach who asked Vering to help coach Glenn last year as a part-time assistant in Washington, D.C. is none other than – you guessed it – Mark Cody.
“Josh is the No. 1-ranked 197-pound wrestler and the defending national champion,” Vering said. “He’s just like Craig . . . down-home, hard-working, very respectful and intelligent. I hate to see those two in the same quarterfinal bracket.”
Brester needs to pull some upsets to advance in this weekend’s NCAA Championships. Even though he’s young, he’s undaunted by competition – just like the rest of Nebraska Coach Mark Manning’s team. The Huskers feature three Big 12 champions, including juniors Brandon Brown (174) and Paul Donahoe (125) and sophomore Jordan Burroughs (149). Nebraska’s other NCAA qualifiers are senior Jon May (285), junior Vince Jones (184) and sophomores Stephen Dwyer (165) and Kenny Jordan (133).
All eight Nebraska wrestlers advanced to the second day of competition. The Huskers won 14 of their 16 matches Thursday, advanced six into Friday’s quarterfinals and won three of those matches with Donahoe, Burroughs and Browne moving into the semifinals. Brester wrestled well, but lost a 10-5 decision to American University's unbeaten Glenn. The Huskers finished the meet's third session with 47.5 points and are tied for second with Oklahoma State. Iowa leads the team standings with 67 points.
“We were picked to finish fifth this weekend, and our best finish ever is third (in 1993),” Manning said. “We have great kids in this program, and we’re trying to win the right way. We want our wrestlers to be successful on the mat, in the classroom and in life, and we have a lot of past wrestlers who will do anything they can to help us.”
Since 1988, only three wrestling programs have won a national team championship – Iowa, Oklahoma State and Minnesota. “They’re like an oil cartel. It’s hard to break in there, but we’re doing our best to get closer and closer,” Manning said.
Donahoe is a catalyst. He entered last year’s NCAA meet as a sixth seed and won a national title as a sophomore. “He epitomizes the attitude of our team,” Manning said. “He’s a jump-starter for us. He has that never-say-die attitude you need throughout the team. He’s the wrestling version of a Tommie Frazier/Tom Rathman/Grant Wistrom. He lights the fire for everyone.”
Brester said he comes from a town “of hard-working people who never give up.” At Howells, “we won a lot of state championships in wrestling and football by working hard and having good attitudes,” he said. “Most of us are farm kids, and in the summer, after working on the farm, we’d car pool into town. We’d get a key from a coach and go run and then lift weights. I still love to go back home and check the cows, the hogs and the planting. When you farm, it makes you want to work as hard as you possibly can in whatever you decide to do.”
Vering agrees. The nation’s best wrestler, whose retired parents ran the local feed mill in Howells, said Brester was able to walk on as a wrestler “because he wasn’t afraid of the hard work it takes to become good. He’s proven once again that competition isn’t always so much a matter of talent as it is how much you want it.”
The blueprint to succeed wasn’t all that complicated. “When you see Brad become the best wrestler in America, you realize he came from the same place you do. And it helps you understand what really drives you,” Brester said. “You don’t need a whole lot to succeed. Even in a little town like Howells, we have everything we need to succeed.”
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