By Alyssa Schrull
The University of Jamestown’s Mike Zupan and Brandon Aragon qualified for the 2018 NAIA National Wrestling Championship at the NAIA Great Plains Regional Championship.
Zupan, a senior on UJ’s men's wrestling team, placed third at 174 pounds. Aragon, UJ's 149-pounder, placed fourth. The University of Jamestown' took seventh place as a team.
The NAIA Wrestling National Championships will be in Des Moines, Iowa, on Friday and Saturday March 2-3. The event can be streamed on the NAIA website through Trackcast. The event will be a double elimination, and the top eight wrestlers from each weight class will be 2018 NAIA All- Americans.
Aragon, a junior and a two-time national qualifier, had a long and bloody fight to the placing rounds. Aragon wrestled a total of six matches, and all of them went the full time. Aragon won his first match by 4-0 decision against Pongshore from Midland University (Neb.).
He lost the second match by decision against Preciado of Northwestern College (Iowa) by 7-3, sending him into the consolation side of the bracket. Aragon said he was excited to wrestle Preciado because he hadn't wrestled him yet this year.
“I wasn't as awake as I would have liked to be,” he said. “I didn't wrestle my match. I wrestled his match, and it showed. After I lost that match I knew I had to battle back and earn my spot. I know what I'm capable of. I knew my coaches needed me, and I knew my team needed me. I was excited to battle back and have my hand raised three more times.”
The third match was won by decision against Jurgens of Doane University (Iowa) 6-4. Aragon won against his fourth match against Smith of Hastings College (Neb.) by 7-4 decision. In his fifth match he won by 6-3 decision against Wilson, who is No. 8 ranked nationally, from Midland University. In the battle for third place Aragon lost by 4-2 decision against Preciado, the same wrestler he lost against in the second round of the tournament.
“We're very proud of Brandon getting fourth place,” said Johnny Gonzalez, a graduate assistant on the men’s wrestling team. “Brandon's bracket was one of the toughest. Brandon placed behind three returning all-Americans.”
UJ Men’s Wrestling Head Coach Dan Lovell said Aragon made it through the toughest bracket in the tournament.
“He took five guys out of that weight class, two all Americans,” he said. “He wrestled tough, but we got to keep beating kids like that if we want to be on the podium [at nationals].”
Lovell said Aragon is starting to get comfortable at the tournaments and the team is excited to see what he can do.
Zupan, a returning All-American, will make his fourth trip to a college national tournament. Zupan had a bye in the first round. In his first match he wrestled, Carstens of Doane University and won 3-2 decision. The next match was a tough loss against Shuler of Northwestern, where Zupan lost by 6-2 decision.
"I train to win; I don't train to be second or third or fourth,” Zupan said. “It hurt, but all you can do is go back to the drawing board a little bit and improve on your weaknesses".
Zupan won his next match by15-14 decision against Wiley of Morningside College (Iowa). In the placing round he won against his teammate Tanner Smith by a 6-4 decision to take third place.
“I feel like I wrestled hard, but there's room for improvements,” Zupan said. “I felt like I was going to be the champion, and I fell short of my goal, but at the end of the day all that matters is nationals.”
Earlier in the year Zupan had shoulder surgery, and Gonzalez said "not many come back from shoulder surgery in the same year.” Yet Zupan came back the same year, qualified for nationals, and “he's looking to be a national champion.”
“It's a big mentally exhausting thing,” Zupan said. “I definitely wasn't as confident at first, and it took so long for it to get close to feeling 100 percent. It's just mentally draining, but you got to trust what you're doing and stick with the program of rehab and focusing on maintaining strength with it, so it doesn't get injured again. It was definitely a struggle."
Zupan isn't just succeeding in athletics; he's succeeding academically as well.
“He's a huge catalyst for this team, he's a returning all American, he doesn't have to go to study hall because of his grades, and he's a good influence,” Gonzalez said.
Lovell was impressed with Zupan.
“He had a good tournament but lost a close match in the semis and then won every match after that,” he added.
Aragon and Zupan have been preparing all year, but as the season has ended for the rest of the team, they are continuing to push themselves in the wrestling room and fine-tune their skills. They're training for nationals, just like any other tournament, but now it's just Zupan and Aragon in the room. With all the focus on them, the practices are really fixated on their individual styles and techniques. "We know what we like to do and we're focusing on those things,” Aragon said.
Zupan said for this next competition he's focusing on relaxing.
“I've trained hard for the last year. So, I'm relaxing and just trusting that everything I've done in the past is going to bring me to my lead performance in this next week,” he said. “I've been focusing on sharpening up some technique and not overtraining and getting mentally right, as well as keeping my weight down.”
The two Jimmies are eager to move on to the next competition.
“These guys both went to the nationals in Ohio, and they've both been hungry to get back to a national tournament since,” Lovell said.
Zupan said he is beyond excited.
“This will probably be one of the last times I ever wrestle in my life competitively,” he said. “I'm hoping just to let it fly. I hope good things happen. You just got to believe.”
Zupan and Aragon said they are thrilled to go out and wrestle for UJ. They're both expected to be All-Americans, but they're focusing on “taking it one match at a time.”