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How Do The Best NAIA Wrestlers Stack Up Against The NCAA?

How Do The Best NAIA Wrestlers Stack Up Against The NCAA?

Find out how the best NAIA wrestlers would fare against their NCAA counterparts.

Jul 2, 2024 by Kyle Klingman
How Do The Best NAIA Wrestlers Stack Up Against The NCAA?

The crown jewel of men’s college wrestling is the NCAA Division I Championships. It is the worldwide benchmark for a domestic sport known affectionately as folkstyle. 

Most of the best compete here because of its high visibility and national exposure. The NAIA division is typically overlooked as a viable path to high-level success — collegiately and internationally. 

A handful of the best NAIA wrestlers have proven they can compete. 

Lock Haven’s Gray Simons won four NAIA titles (1959-62) and three NCAA titles (1960-62) and made Olympic Teams in 1960 and 1964. Ken Melchior (Lock Haven) and Rick Sanders (Portland State) competed at the NAIA championships before winning NCAA titles and, in Sanders’ case, World and Olympic medals. 

The following list is not meant for them. We know how good they were and how they performed at the next level. 

It’s not for Lindenwood’s Jake Dieffenbach and Chris Chionuma, either — NAIA champions who transferred to Oklahoma State. Dieffenbach secured an impressive win over Iowa’s two-time NCAA champion Mark Perry at Carver-Hawkeye Arena but neither was a D1 All-American. 

This is for those who had NAIA success but never had a shot at the D1 NCAA Championships. Below are a handful of top NAIA wrestlers and their chances at the Big Show where the lights shine bright. 

John Peterson (Wisconsin-Stout)
1971 NAIA: 5th at 167

Peterson placed fifth at the 1971 NAIA Championships then made a World team a few months later. What happened next seems improbable: he won a silver medal at the 1972 Olympics and a gold medal in 1976.

The Comstock, Wisconsin, native finished second at the 1970 Midlands Championships (considered tougher than the NCAA Championships) during his senior season before reeling off five Midlands titles after his college career. 

He even wrestled his younger brother, Ben, in a closed-room wrestle-off for the right to compete at 82 kg while the loser had to move up to 90. John defeated Ben and took silver at the 1972 Olympics while his brother took gold. 

D1 NCAA Championships Predictor: DNP
Peterson’s rise to greatness might be the most inspirational in wrestling history. His dominant run through the 1976 Montreal Olympics is the stuff of legend, and making a World team months after a fifth-place finish at the NAIA Championships is unfathomable. 

Still, he finished fifth at the NAIA Championships and wasn’t training consistently with Dan Gable and his brother yet. And the 1971 NCAA Championships only had six-place winners. And he was cutting too much weight. Peterson would have been on the outside looking in but would have won if nationals were a few months later. 

Jim Hazewinkel (St. Cloud State)
1963 NAIA: 1st at 115
1963 NAIA: 1st at 115
1964 NAIA: 1st at 123
1967 NAIA: 1st at 123

If genetics is an indicator, then Hazewinkel would have performed well at the D1 Championships. Jim made the 1968 and 1972 Greco-Roman Olympic Teams, as did his identical twin brother, Dave. His nephew (Dave’s son), Sam, was a 2012 freestyle Olympian and Greco World teamer who finished 3-3-3-2 at the NCAA D1 Championships for Oklahoma. 

Greco success isn’t always the best predictor of D1 folkstyle success, but it’s hard to overlook Jim’s seven World and Olympic teams. 

D1 NCAA Championships Predictor: multi-time place winner
Hazewinkel had Lehigh’s three-time NCAA champion Mike Caruso standing in his way at 123, along with Michigan’s three-time national finalist Bob Fehrs. His best chance for a title was at 115 when unseeded Bucky Maughan won the 1963 title. Hazewinkel would likely have reached the podium at least once — maybe more. 

Justin Abdou (Simon Fraser)
1990 NAIA: 1st at 177
1991 NAIA: 1st at 177
1992 NAIA: 1st at 177
1993 NAIA: 1st at 177

Abdou’s college record (approximately 212-21) is messy since his coach counted all his matches — folkstyle and freestyle. His first folkstyle match was a 13-13 tie against Portland State’s returning D2 champion Tony Champion where Abdou locked his hands three times since he was unfamiliar with college rules.

The Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, native has an impressive hit list during and after college with wins over NCAA champions Dan St. John, Cael Sanderson, Lee Fullhart, Mike Van Arsdale, Chris Barnes, and Dean Morrison. He made six Senior freestyle World teams and the 2000 Olympics for Canada, but learning folkstyle takes time. 

D1 NCAA Championships Predictor: three-time mid- to high-placer

Here is who won the NCAA Division I Championships during Abdou’s college career.

1990: Chris Barnes (Oklahoma State)
1991: Marty Morgan (Minnesota)
1992: Kevin Randleman (Ohio State)
1993: Kevin Randleman (Ohio State). 

Let’s give Abdou the benefit of the doubt and assume an expedited learning curve after one NCAA tournament where he didn’t place. Abdou has a freestyle win over Barnes but winning a D1 folkstyle title and developing top and bottom skills would have determined his best finish. 

Abdou has third- or fourth-place potential in him. In 1993, he majored West Virginia’s Dean Morrison in folkstyle and Morrison won the 1994 NCAA Championships. Reaching the top spot would have taken the tournament of his life but it’s possible had he redshirted. 

Daniel Igali (Simon Fraser)
1997 NAIA: 1st at 158
1998 NAIA: 1st at 158
1999 NAIA: 1st at 165

Igali is Canada’s greatest male wrestler. In addition to a 116-0 college folkstyle record, he won the 1999 World Championships and 2000 Olympic Games with victories over Iowa’s three-time NCAA champion Lincoln McIlravy. 

He took freestyle losses in college, including a setback to USA Wrestling’s current women’s national team coach Terry Steiner, but was a star on the biggest stage. He competed at 69 kg (152 pounds) for the Worlds/Olympics, a few pounds lower than his college weights. 

Igali’s balance, explosiveness, scrambling, flexibility, technique, and mental toughness were on par with the best in the world. 

D1 NCAA Championships Predictor: NCAA champion and multiple placer
Igali vs Iowa’s three-time NCAA champion Joe Williams in college would have been a dream match. Williams won nationals at 158 in 1997, the same year Igali won his first NAIA title. 

NCAA champions in the 150 to 165 range during Igali’s career included McIlravy, Williams, Casey Cunningham (Central Michigan), Kirk White (Boise State), Chris Bono (Iowa State), Ernest Benion (Illinois), Dwight Gardner (Ohio), Joe Heskett (Iowa State), Eric Siebert (Illinois), and Donny Pritzlaff (Wisconsin). 

Getting out from underneath would have been key for Igali, who was shorter than many opponents. Gardner, Heskett, and Cunningham had a tough top game so this would have taken work for a freestyle wizard like Igali. 

Igali is Canada’s only Olympic gold medalist in men’s freestyle wrestling, so there’s a good chance this generational talent could win it all. 

Kerry Boumans (Mary)
1990: 3rd at 118
1992: 7th at 126
1993: 1st at 126
1994: 1st at 126

Boumans famously took Terry Brands to the wire in the best-of-three 58 kg series at the 2000 Olympic Trials. Brands was a two-time NCAA and World champion who eventually won bronze in Sydney. 

No Division I schools wanted the three-time Louisiana state champion so he landed in Bismarck, North Dakota, with head coach Monty Trusty. Boumans eventually won several important freestyle tournaments, including the US Open, World Cup, and Dave Schultz Memorial International. 

D1 NCAA Championships Predictor: mid- to low-placer
Boumans is tougher than a 50-year-old piece of beef jerky but he was a late bloomer who peaked during his late 20s and early 30s. Finding the D1 podium during his college years would have been difficult but possible — especially in such a deep weight. We’ll assume he competed at multiple NCAA Championships and found a way to the stand during his senior season. 

Emmett Willson (Montana State-Northern)
2001 NAIA: 3rd at 174
2002 NAIA: 1st at 197
2003 NAIA: 1st at 197
2004 NAIA: 1st at 197

Willson took on all-comers during his senior season — and won. His barnstorming tour of the United States included a 50-0 record during the 2003-2004 season with 24 falls.

He won Midlands, Cliff Keen Las-Vegas Invitational, and the NWCA All-Star meets with victories over the third (JD Bergman), fourth (Ryan Bader), sixth (Sean Stender), and seventh (Matt Greenberg) place finishers from the 2004 NCAA Championships. Willson also placed ahead of national champion Damion Hahn at Vegas and runner-up Ryan Fulsaas at the Midlands — but never faced each other. 

D1 NCAA Championships Predictor: finalist or NCAA champion
Willson’s senior season had several benchmark wins so a national title wasn’t out of reach. The Shepherd, Montana, native would have been seeded first, bumping Northern Iowa’s Stender to the four-seed. 

Willson would likely have faced returning champion Hahn in the finals. This is a 50-50 match but the edge goes to Hahn based on a season-long Big Ten schedule and experience on wrestling’s biggest stage. 

Eric Thompson (Grand View)
2012 NAIA: 1st at 285
2013 NAIA: 1st at 285
2014 NAIA: 1st at 285

Thompson was the nation’s top high school heavyweight who began his career at Iowa State. A move from Ames to Des Moines yielded three dominant NAIA title runs for the Vikings. He finished eighth at the 2012 Midlands and notched a win over Iowa’s Bobby Telford at the Grand View Open. 

Like Hazewinkel, Thompson has a strong genetic code. His first cousin, Tolly, was a 1995 NCAA heavyweight champion for Nebraska and a 2005 World bronze medalist.

D1 NCAA Championships Predictor: mid- to low-placer
The Waverly, Iowa, native continued training with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, finishing fifth at the 2016 Olympic Trials. He was right there with Telford, who finished 5-4-5 at nationals, so that’s likely where Thompson would have landed. After college, Thompson earned a freestyle victory over Minnesota’s two-time champion Tony Nelson. 

Others To Consider

Baterdene Boldmaa (Doane)
NAIA: 1-1-1-3 (2020-23)

Brandon Reed (Lindsey Wilson)
NAIA: 4-1-1-1 (2018-21)

Evan Hanson (Grand View)
NAIA: 1-1-1-1 (2017-20)

Brock Gutches (Southern Oregon)
NAIA: 1-1-1-1 (2012-15)

Brandon Wright (Grand View)
NAIA: 1-1 (2014-15)

Chad Lowman (Grand View)
NAIA: 3-1-1 (2012-14)

Mitchell Lofstedt (Southern Oregon)
NAIA: 2-1-1-1 (2009-13)

Turk Lords (Montana State-Northern)
NAIA: 1-1-1-1 (1998-2001)

Bobby Lashley (Missouri Valley)
NAIA: 4-1-1-1 (1995-98)

Chuck Pipher (SCU-Pueblo)
NAIA: 2-1-1-1 (1986-89)

Bob Molle (Simon Fraser)
NAIA: 1-1-1-1 (1983-86)

Lanny Davidson (Eastern Washington)
NAIA: 2-1-1-1 (1974-77)

Roy Washington (Nebraska-Omaha)
NAIA: 2-1-1-1 (1967-70)