WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. – Head coach Danny Irwin’s fast-rising West Liberty University wrestling team was ranked No. 4 in the nation with nationally ranked wrestlers in six of the 10 weight classes when TheOpenMat.com website released its annual preseason NCAA Division II rankings.
Two-time defending national champion St. Cloud State (Minn.) was No. 1 with 103.5 points, followed by perennial powers Nebraska-Kearney with 73 points. Lindenwood (Mo.) was third with 62 points with West Liberty (45.5) and Central Oklahoma (45) rounding out the top five.
Another bumper recruiting crop bolstered by the addition of two former NCAA Division II national champions has vaulted Irwin and WLU onto the short list of national championship contenders in just his second season on the hilltop.
“Being recognized as one of the top teams in the nation has just a little bit of gratification to it,” Irwin said. “Our assistants have been hustling to build the program and I hope they understand how important that work is. I also hope it’s exciting for our alumni to see West Liberty back in the conversation with the best teams. Our alumni have invested financially into the program to give us the tools that allow us to train at a high level and attract good people to campus!”
Four of the Black and Gold’s six nationally-ranked grapplers were among the top five in their respective weight classes with each of the six wrestlers either first or second in the region.
“Rankings get people excited and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit excited to see West Liberty ranked in the top five as a team and six of our guys ranked among the best in the nation,” Irwin said. “This group feels they have been putting in the volume while staying focused on the details that will put them in position to succeed in March. Given the competitors we have in the room, the fact that all of our weights aren’t represented (in the rankings) should provide some extra motivation.”
Senior transfers Connor Craig and Tyler Warner won national championships while wrestling for Irwin at Wheeling in 2019. They competed at Pitt-Johnstown a year ago before reuniting with Irwin this season.
Craig is a 2-time NCAA Division II All-American with a sparkling 84-13 career record. He was the 174-pound national champion in 2019 and was seeded No. 4 at 184 pounds when last year’s national championship meet was canceled due to the pandemic. He enters his final season ranked No. 2 nationally and No. 1 in the region at 184 pounds.
Warner is a 3-time NCAA Division II All-American who is 63-12 on the mat at the collegiate level. He was the 133-pound national champion in 2019 and was the No. 6 seed at 133 pounds at the 2020 national championships. He is ranked No. 5 nationally and No. 1 in the region at 133 pounds this season.
Irwin also has four nationally ranked grapplers returning to the Black and Gold fold.
Junior Cole Laya is a 2-time NCAA Division II All-American with an impressive 36-5 career mark. He placed third at 125 in the 2019 NCAA Division II national championships and went 14-2 a year ago while earning his second straight All-America honor. He’s ranked No. 5 nationally and No. 1 in the region at 125 pounds this year.
Redshirt freshman Alec Cook sat out last season as a redshirt but had a Top Four finish at the Mount Union Open and posted 14 wins while wrestling unattached in his first collegiate season. The 2-time West Virginia state high school champion is ranked No. 15 nationally and No. 2 in the region at 149 pounds.
Senior Logan Kemp is a 2-time national qualifier who was ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation a year ago and was runner-up at the Findlay Open before having his season cut short due to injury. Now a graduate student back for his final season, Kemp is ranked No. 3 nationally and No. 2 in the region at 197 pounds.
Sophomore Francesco Borsellino is a former NCAA Division II regional placer who is also coming off a medical redshirt season. A 2-time Ohio state champion who is also a 2-year starter on the defensive line for the WLU football team, Borsellino is ranked No. 13 nationally and No. 2 in the region at 285 pounds this season.
Irwin appreciates the attention that the lofty preseason rankings bring to his program and the motivation they provide for his troops but he understands there are plenty of hills for the Black and Gold to climb in order to get where they want to go.
“Winning a national championship is one of our goals,” Irwin said, “but there are probably 10 teams with the guys capable of winning one. In order for us to reach that goal, we need to continue training the way we have been training. That wouldn’t be possible without the hard work and support of our administration and training staff. Our coaches and athletes are incredibly appreciative of their efforts.”
NCAA Division II
Preseason Top 25
1. St. Cloud State 103.5
2. Nebraska-Kearney 73
3. Lindenwood 62
4. WEST LIBERTY 45.5
5. Central Oklahoma 45
6. McKendree 38
7. Gannon 33.5
8. Newberry 32
9. Fort Hays State 31.5
10. Tiffin 31
11. Kutztown 30.5
12. UNC-Pembroke 29
13. Colorado Mesa 28.5
14. Findlay 27
15. Notre Dame (Ohio) 24
16. Pitt-Johnstown 20.5
17. East Stroudsburg 19.5
18. Colorado School of Mines 19
(tie) Mary 19
20. Newman 17
21. Adams State 15
(tie) Indianapolis 15
23. Mercyhurst 14.5
24. MSU-Mankato 14
25. Wisconsin-Parkside 13.5
(tie) Drury 13.5