Mark Lewandowski’s friends and family nearly filled section 104 at Alumni Arena. They were in attendance Sunday to cheer the University at Buffalo senior in his quest for a conference championship but Lewandowski missed his chance for a storybook ending.
Lewandowski, who attended Lancaster High School, was one of three UB wrestlers in search of Mid-American Conference wrestling championships but finished as runners-up in their weight class. Still, four Bulls qualified for the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships on March 21-23 at the Wells Fargo Center in Des Moines, Iowa.
Advancing are Lewandowski (165 pounds), Max Soria (125), Blake Roulo (149) and John-Martin Cannon (174). Lewandowski, Roulo and Cannon finished second in their weight class while Soria finished fourth.
No. 4 ranked Missouri was the overwhelming team winner with 136 points followed by No. 11 Central Michigan (88), No. 22 Northern Iowa (83), Kent State (82), Northern Illinois and Ohio (63.5) – who tied for fifth, UB (51.5) and Eastern Michigan (44.5). The champion Tigers joined the MAC in wrestling after leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. The SEC doesn’t offer wrestling. UB finished 1-4 in the regular season.
“I thought we could have had three champions out of the three finalists but we didn’t, so that was a little disappointing,” UB coach Jim Beichner said. “There were a couple of calls that were close, and it may have made a difference in some of the matches, but if you’re going to wrestle and compete in a close match you have to find ways to not lose them. … If you dominate somebody, the referees are never going to be involved in it.”
The day was bittersweet for both Lewandowski and Cannon.
Lewandowski lost his title match to top seeded Mike Ottinger, 8-5, the fourth time he’s lost to the Central Michigan wrestler. Lewandowski took Ottinger down first then Ottinger reversed him. Lewandowski escaped and led after the first period, but Ottinger got another take down and Lewandowski couldn’t regain control.
“This is my fourth time wrestling that kid and he’s beaten me every time,” Lewandowski said. “It’s upsetting because there’s a style clash and it’s a bad matchup for me. Half the guys he’s lost to this year I’ve beaten handily. He’s a tough opponent for me.”
The defensive-minded Ottinger is Lewandowski’s Joe Frazier. They also met last year in the MAC finals and Ottinger won in triple overtime. In a matchup earlier this year, Lewandowski was called for pulling the head gear and Ottinger was given a point which ended up being the only point in the match.
“Every time I’ve wrestled against him he’s avoided wrestling and it’s upsetting to lose to somebody like that,” Lewandowski said. “It’s just upsetting not getting it done in front of everybody. I feel like I’m a way better caliber wrestler than him.”
Redemption begins at the NCAAs where Lewandowski makes his third appearance. Cornell’s Kyle Dake is considered the favorite at 165, while Lewandowski ranks in the top 12. Maybe by then Ottinger will be off his mind.
“I probably won’t see him in the nationals and I’ll go up against people who I line up against better,” he said. “Five of the guys he’s lost to I’ve beaten. It’s tough to lose, especially four times but credit to him for wrestling his way.”
The No. 3 seeded Lewandowski entered his final conference tournament as the highest-ranked MAC wrestler nationally (eighth in the RPI rankings and 14th in the coaches poll).
“Hopefully he’s going to rock for us because he’s been part of the foundation of our program,” Beichner said.
As for Cannon, it was a miracle that he even competed at all. The fifth-year senior from Brockport nearly missed the entire season due to a myriad of injuries.
He suffered a groin injury in practice which required surgery then got elbowed in the face his first match back and missed more time with breaks to his nose and cheek bone. After returning from the face injury, Cannon tore cartilage in his knee which also required surgery.
“I don’t know any athlete who bounces back like he has,” Beichner said. “Hopefully his story ends with a very good ending.”
The fourth-seeded Cannon knocked off top seed Todd Porter of Missouri in the semifinals before falling to No. 2 seed Cody Walters from Ohio in the finals, 5-3. After his match, Cannon, off to the nationals for the third time in his career, sat motionless in the far end of the arena for nearly 45 minutes.
“Anyone who saw him compete would say he bounced back very well,” Beichner said. “He can go out there and be an All-American.”