PEMBROKE — Nearly a year ago, Daniel Ownbey was poised to make history.
In his sophomore season at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, the 141-pounder entered the Division II Wrestling Championships a perfect 36-0 and expected to become the first wrestler in school history to finish the season undefeated.
The pressure got the best of him.
The top seed in the tournament, Ownbey lost his opening match and ended up going 2-3, taking eighth place.
“I went into nationals last year thinking it was my tournament. I hadn’t been beaten all year long, no one’s going to be able to do it now,” Ownbey said. “I didn’t get the warmup I needed, I was overconfident and it was a big slap in the face.”
It’s a memory that he’s put behind him but a lesson he’s kept in mind over the last two weeks as he prepared to return to the national tournament for the third year in a row.
Ownbey is one of four Braves wrestling at this year’s D-II Wrestling Championship tournament, which starts Thursday at Public Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. He’ll be joined by 149-pound senior Justin Pencook and 174-pound sophomore Blaze Shade, who are both making their second trip to the tournament, and Chris Giddens, a junior heavyweight who is making his first trip.
The focus for Ownbey is getting his first national title, having placed third as a redshirt freshman and eighth during his sophomore season last year.
This spring, he enters the national tournament under far different circumstances than last year.
Ownbey won five different tournaments last season, but never placed higher than second this season. Rather than entering at 36-0, he comes in with eight losses. Last year, he went undefeated against Newberry’s B.J. Young, who he’s wrestled 11 times in three years, this year he was winless.
It’s the result of a more challenging schedule says UNCP coach Othello Johnson.
“Daniel wants to win. I don’t think you can question his drive and his desire to win a national title,” Johnson said. “Going into last year’s national tournament, he was undefeated, he’d beaten his nemesis (Young) all year long and he went into the national tournament pretty much thinking they’d hand him the trophy.
“This year, he’s had a lot of diversity. We’ve put him in tough situation, he’s wrestled probably four or five times with Division I competition. He’s had his fair share of tough, tough matches and he’s lost a handful but he’s won a few of them. He’s going in there with an even-keeled mindset.”
Ownbey faced Division I competition at multiple points in the season, including trips to Virginia and North Carolina State. Young has beat him by both major decision and tech fall.
Though he lacks the pressure that comes with being undefeated, Ownbey admits it hasn’t been the most satisfying campaign thus far.
“There are a couple of matches where I could have gotten the win but I didn’t,” he said.
He sees nationals as a clean slate.
Though Ownbey isn’t dwelling on the past, he’s taken more than the humbled outlook into it. His goal during the last bit of training has been to be aggressive and use his stamina to his advantage, something he didn’t do last year.
“If I can get out there, score early and score often, not only am I racking up points and forcing them to wrestle me, which I wrestle better when people are engaged, the fact that I’m wearing them down more, I believe I can outlast anybody in my weight class,” Ownbey said.
Beyond just Ownbey, the Braves look to return home with multiple All-Americans.
Shade and Pencook both went 1-2 last year at nationals but also have the extra year of experience.
Pencook joined the team late last season, transferring in at the midway point. He’s 20-7 thus far, with a win in his division at the Pembroke Classic in November. Shade is sitting at 24-8 and was the Braves’ only placer at N.C. State’s Wolfpack Open.
More importantly, Johnson said, the three will be familiar with the atmosphere of the national tourney.
“In any sport, the more you go to the big dance, the more familiar with it, the more relaxed you are,” Johnson said. “The moment is not going to be bigger than it needs to be.”
The returners will also provide support for Giddens, who has moved his way up since his freshman season. He’s gone 25-7 this year and was the only other Brave to win his division at the Pembroke Classic tournament.
The major difference that they’ve made in training is to account for the first day of nationals, when the tournament starts in the morning, but doesn’t move to the second-round matches until eight hours later. The four remaining wrestlers have practiced on that same schedule with the goal of making it to the second day.
“Once they get there, their instincts will take over for the rest of the tournament,” Johnson said.
All four got a taste of top national competition in Indianapolis at the Midwest Classic in December, where they were the Braves’ only placers. The tournament had some of the country’s top teams, including current No. 1 Lindenwood, No. 4 Indianapolis and No. 7 Newberry.
“The Midwest Classic is the bigger tournament those guys wrestled in and they’ve seen that ‘level of competition’ over a two-day span,” Johnson said. “They know how to approach it and know how to perform at it, so I don’t think it’s going to be anything new for them and I think they’re going to use their experience from last year to go into the tournament with a different mindset.”