Nebraska wrestling looks to veteran duo to provide leadership

A new-look starting lineup isn’t the only significant change this season for Tyler Berger and Colton McCrystal.

The returning NCAA qualifiers are being counted on to fill leadership roles for a Nebraska team that graduated six of 10 starters.

“It’s a completely different team dynamic than it was last year,” said Berger, a 157-pound junior who earned All-America honors by placing fifth at nationals in March. “Last year, we had a lot of leadership with those guys, so it was me kind of sitting in the background and listening.

“This year, it’s completely flipped. Me and McCrystal are the captains and now we’re trying to take what we learned from the older guys and help these freshmen grow and help us be competitive right off the bat.”

The Huskers open the season at the Warren Williamson Open in Brookings, South Dakota, at 9 a.m. Sunday.

McCrystal, who may be the only senior in Nebraska’s starting lineup, is coming off his best season as a Husker. He was second on the team in wins last season — behind Berger’s 36. He finished 34-11 at 141 pounds and will wrestle at 149 this season.

“Being one of the older guys in the room, you kind of feel that responsibility,” McCrystal said. “I’m just trying to be exactly what the guys were who I looked up to, like Robert (Kokesh), Austin Wilson, Eric Montoya.”

Those wrestlers were staples in the lineup, and this year’s team will have to replace a ton of experience. Montoya, TJ Dudley and Aaron Studebaker were All-Americans as seniors. Dudley, Collin Jensen and Tim Lambert, who is now a volunteer assistant coach, were four-year starters in Lincoln.

Last year’s seniors propelled Nebraska to top-10 finishes at nationals each of the past three years. Nebraska placed ninth last season, and though the lineup is being revamped, the Huskers are optimistic that they can improve on that finish.

“You don’t get anything for ninth place,” McCrystal said. “We want a team trophy this year, and that’s top four. It’s my last opportunity to do it, so I need to do as much as I can.”

Mark Manning, Nebraska’s coach since 2000, agreed that the Huskers don’t need to take a step back.

In InterMat’s preseason rankings, Nebraska is No. 11 for dual teams in a loaded conference. Seven of the top 12 are from the Big Ten. Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan are the top three teams. Iowa is No. 7.

“A lot of new faces, which for us is exciting because we felt we recruited really well,” Manning said. “It’s all about development at this time of year. They’re not afraid of stepping on the mat and proving themselves. What I’m most excited about is their attitude and the energy they’re going to bring.”

Many of the contenders for starting spots are freshmen — Jason Renteria at 133, Chad Red at 141, Beau Briske or Mikey Labriola at 171, Taylor Venz at 184 and Eric Schultz at 197.

Sophomore Isaiah White, an NCAA Division II national champion at Notre Dame (Ohio) a season ago, is expected to challenge for the spot at 165. Two other sophomores, Kris Williams at 125 and heavyweight Patrick Grayson, went 2-0 in last weekend’s intrasquad wrestle-offs.

“With this group, the maturity and attitude is different,” Manning said. “They’re primed to compete at this level.”

NU’s schedule — November: 5, Warren Williamson Open, Brookings, S.D., 9 a.m. 17, Wyoming, 7 p.m. 25, at West Virginia, 1 p.m.

December: 1-2, Cliff Keen Invitational, Las Vegas, 11 a.m. 15, North Carolina State, 7 p.m. 17, North Carolina, 2 p.m.

January: 5, at Illinois, 8 p.m. 7, Maryland, 2 p.m. 12, Purdue, 7 p.m. 19, at Northwestern, 7 p.m. 21, Rutgers, 1 p.m. 28, Indiana, 2 p.m.

February: 2, at Michigan, 6 p.m. 4, at Michigan State, noon. 9, at Wisconsin, 7 p.m. 16, at Stanford, 9 p.m.

March 3-4: Big Ten championship, East Lansing Mich. March 15-17: NCAA championships, Cleveland.

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