By CONOR NICHOLL
Senior 141-pounder C.J. Napier came to Fort Hays State University three years ago after he started his career at University of Nebraska and then spent a short time away from the sport. Napier has collected nearly every award a Tiger wrestler can win and has made history, including becoming FHSU's first MIAA individual champion.
Napier is 74-14 in his career, an 84 percent rate, currently better than the Tiger school mark of 82.9 percent set by David Nordhues from 2003-06. Napier qualified for the national tournament two years ago, missed out last season and captured a 2014 regional title.
"It has gone very quickly, but I love every minute of it," Napier said. "It's the biggest thing in my life pretty much, and I think I will be a little bit of a wreck afterwards. I am not going to know what to do with myself. I am going to have to coach. I know that. I have always known that. I can't be away from this sport for more than a week or two at a time."
This weekend, Napier could collect his elusive All-American honor -- and could earn the first NCAA Division II national championship in FHSU history. Napier and four other Tiger qualifiers compete at nationals Friday and Saturday in Cleveland.
"I feel excited," Napier said. "Worked my whole career for a national title. Time to go out and get it. Feels like everything is clicking. Everything feels right."
FHSU's last finalist was Tommy Edgmon in 2009, while Nordhues also reached a championship match in 2006. The last titles came in the school's NAIA era in 1987 with Bill Johnson, now the longtime successful Norton Community High School wrestling coach, and Marc Hull won at 118 and 134 pounds, respectively.
"He has had a good career, but I think everybody typically goes back and looks and to see if someone has been an All-American on how to define one's career," coach Chas Thompson said. "It would be nice to be able to say 'C.J. came here and was an All-American.' We definitely want that for C.J. He wants it bad. We have worked hard, and he is doing everything that I ask of him."
In addition to Napier, FHSU also qualified senior 157-pounder Mitchell Means, an All-American as a freshman and a three-time national qualifier with a 21-8 record this season. Senior 197-pounder Tanner Kriss (13-6) qualified for the second straight year, and freshman Jon Iman (26-6) earned MIAA Freshman of the Year honors earlier this year. Sophomore 174-pounder Josh Rodriguez (16-9) also qualified; Thompson called him "definitely our darkhorse."
Napier stands third nationally, while Rodriguez and Inman are sixth and Kriss stands eighth. FHSU, ranked No. 10 in the final poll, could finish in the top-10. The best in the Division II era is ninth in 2000.
"It's a surprise to anybody who doesn't know a whole lot about our team," Thompson said. "He knew he could qualify. I think he even surprised himself a little bit by making the (regional) finals. He is an extremely good athlete. He is speed, power, athleticism. He is not the best technician in the world, but he is very hard to control."
Napier has delivered his best season with the Tigers. He has fully bought into Thompson's philosophies and has been running extra on the side. On the mat, he has rode opponents more and worked on beating them by larger margins.
"I think C.J. can absolutely be a national champion," Thompson said. "He has got to be putting everything together, though. Everything has got to be going right for him on that day."
At nationals, Thompson believes Napier will have several opponents the senior can beat with relative ease. Napier's biggest test will likely come from Adams State senior Ryan Fillingame, the defending national runner-up. The two will meet up in the semifinals. Napier is 1-2 against Fillingame. The pair has gone to double overtime twice. Napier has watched film and developed a strategy.
"That is going to be the key match," Napier said. "If I get past Fillingame, I will be a national champion. He will be the one to beat."