Matt Zwaschka picked up a dry-erase marker and began drawing a bus on an expansive whiteboard in the front of the room.
It was September, and the recently appointed University of Wisconsin-Whitewater head wrestling coach stood in front of his new team—one he had no part in recruiting or assembling—for the first time.
Six months after that initial meeting, six Warhawks wrestlers are headed to the NCAA Championships this week in Roanoke, Virginia. The tournament takes place Friday and Saturday, with preliminary rounds beginning at 10 a.m. Friday
“I said, ‘There’s a bus here, and it’s going to Roanoke. I’m driving the bus, and my assistant coaches are on it,’” Zwaschka said.
“We told them, ‘The sooner you get on this bus and the sooner you believe in what we’re trying to do, the better off we’ll be.’”
Zwaschka warned his wrestlers that some people might fall off the bus and that some might try to stop them from making it to nationals. He reminded the leaders that it was in those times that they needed to get out and help pull the bus there.
Senior qualifier Nick Stencel admitted he was a bit confused when the coach began drawing on the whiteboard during the first meeting but said that message quickly brought the team together.
“At first it was kind of like, ‘What’s going on here?’ But then I kind of realized this coach wants everybody there together,” said Stencel, who is seeded sixth in the the 184-pound bracket. “He understood the aspect of bringing the team together and fighting as one, because you’re only as strong as your weakest link.”
Junior Mike Tortorice is headed back to the tournament after placing third last year at 125 pounds. He’s seeded second in this year’s bracket.
Senior Nick Bonomo is also returning to the NCAA Championships for the second straight season at 165 pounds.
Stencel (184), freshman Jaritt Shinhoster (184) and juniors Riley Kauzlaric (197) and Hazen Rice (141) also qualified for the tournament. Kauzlaric is the only other UW-W wrestler who is seeded, at No. 8.
Bonomo said he and his teammates are ready to go.
“Hopefully I can capture a national title because that’s what I’ve been working for all season,” he said. “But if that doesn’t happen, you just have to remember it’s not over.
“I think we have a team that could place top four, at least.”
The senior said the fact that the team is sending so many wrestlers will create a fun experience.
“Having your teammates out there with you is just fun,” Bonomo said. “You’ve got six guys out there pulling together, and all six guys with the same goal.”
Rice is headed to the tournament as the third seed in the 141-pound weight class after winning the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament and being named the co-outstanding wrestler of the regional tournament.
“It’s just super exciting for me as a wrestler, and I’m really excited for my teammates,” Rice said. “Six guys is a great number for us, and we’re ready to go.”
And while the team is traveling by airplane, they hope the ride home Sunday includes a bus load of national honors.
“It feels really good to bring six guys knowing that we have a good chance to bring home some hardware this year,” Stencel said.
“For every one of them, their goal is to be a national champ or an All-American,” he said. “They’re all capable of doing that.”
Pair of area grads qualify at 285 pounds
Two area high school graduates are in the DIII 285-pound bracket at Roanoke.
Wartburg College senior Bowen Wileman, a 2015 Milton High graduate, is unseeded and brings a 23-7 record into the tournament.
UW-Platteville sophomore Lucius Rinehart, who graduated from Evansville High, is unseeded and brings a 28-6 mark.