Dalton Jensen guided the Nebraska-Kearney wrestling program to a runner-up finish at the 2021 NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships. UNK finished just 1.5 points behind St. Cloud State. It marked the sixth time the Lopers have finished second at the NCAAs.
MatBoss caught up with Jensen and talked to him about this past season, expectations for the 2021-22 season, differences between Division I and Division II, Cael Sanderson, Kyle Dake, Kamaru Usman, Tervel Dlganev and more.
Your program finished runner-up at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships to St. Cloud State, which is your highest finish as a head coach since taking over in 2016. You had nine All-Americans, but you came up just short of a national championship. What were the emotions leaving St. Louis?
Jensen: At the end of the day, being that close, there was a disappointment. There’s obviously a lot of positives to take away. That’s the most All-Americans we’ve ever had, that was the most national qualifiers we’ve ever had. As far as controlling what we can control, that was enough team points to have won it every year since 2013. So we did what we needed to do but St. Cloud did it a little bit better. These guys were hungry but eft there without taking a prize piece home with them that they were expecting to.
Four of your nine All-Americans were seniors last year. Are all of them returning for another season?
Jensen: Yes, all of them are returning.
Josh Portillo earned his second Elite 90 Award. He has been a national finalist and three-time All-American. What has he meant to your program?
Jensen: That’s pretty special. That’s something that only one person at each national championship gets to walk away with. So the fact that he’s done it twice has just been a testament to how much time and effort he’s putting in off the mat, as well as on the mat. This year he fell a round short from being an All-American but still with him returning next year he has the capability of ending his career as a four-time All-American and potentially a three-time Elite 90 Award winner. So when you talk about being a student-athlete, he’s kind of encompassed that and has done it at a high level.
You and Andrew Sorenson were part of the same recruiting class at Iowa State in 2006. Obviously, your roads diverged a little bit … but in 2016 he became your head assistant coach at Nebraska Kearney. Why do you two work well together?
Jensen: Andrew and I were on some dual teams together [in junior high and high school]. We’ve looked back and found pictures of us standing next to each other in eighth grade on some dual teams and in high school. Obviously, we had the opportunity to be in the same recruiting class in college and go to Iowa State together and be roommates there. Our paths changed a little bit. We went through that process where Cael left Penn State and I ended up transferring to UNK. Andrew finished out his career at Iowa State. But we kind of always had the dream of wanting to coach in college. Obviously, if two best friends could do that together that was going to be an ideal situation. We just didn’t know what the timeline would look like for that and if that path would actually create itself. It happened earlier than we would ever expected with Marc Bauer and stepping down as head coach moving into that Athletic Director role here at UNK. I transitioned into that head position in 2016. Andrew was a no-brainer to try to get here and help out our program. We balance each other out real well. We have the same goals in mind. At the end of the day we want to help our athletes become the best version of themselves that they can be. We both bring different aspects to the table and complement each other.
Over the years a lot of wrestlers have transferred to Nebraska Kearney from Division I programs and been successful. You were one of them. You have some past Division I wrestlers now like Sam Turner and Matthew Malcom who transferred from Division I schools. What is it about the environment that maybe makes it a better fit?
Jensen: That’s something that we have thought about. A lot of these kids reach out to us. It’s not necessarily that I’m sitting there scrolling Division I rosters and seeing who’s leaving and hunting these kids down. Kids have different reasons for transferring. For me it was a coaching change. Things weren’t the right fit for me anymore at Iowa State. I went through the recruiting process here at UNK as well. Coach Bauer recruited me out of high school. I remembered this being a special program, a place where I felt like they were going to care for me as more than just an athlete, but in all aspects of my life.
Coach Sorenson and I want to win, but there’s more than just wrestling. We want to make this a fun experience as well for them. I think some kids kind of see that from afar. And obviously, we’ve been successful as well, which I think makes us marketable. Even from the recruiting process, we’re overlapping with a lot of Division I schools. We end up losing these kids, but they remember their experience in the recruiting process and that this could have been a good fit. So if we end up losing out on a kid, but he goes and tries a Division I program for a year or two and decides he doesn’t like it, I feel like a lot of these kids end up still reaching out to us.
As a wrestler, you had success both in Division I as a national qualifier at Iowa State and in Division II as a national champion at Nebraska Kearney. As someone who has competed in both Division I and Division II, what do you see as the biggest differences between the divisions?
Jensen: At the end of the day, like it would it be for any sport, the biggest gap you are probably going to see between Division I and Division II is the talent. Obviously, that’s not me negatively talking on any of the talent level of Division II, but I think you’re seeing a very elite level of athletes as a whole is going to be probably a little bit greater at the Division I level than the Division II level. Kids going straight to Division I — at least your high-end recruits — are nationally proven already. They probably have some credentials coming out of high school … placing in Fargo and maybe being a top-100 recruit. You’re not seeing very many of those kids choosing the Division II route. So Division I certainly is getting kids that are most definitely already proven at the national level. In Division II, we have to kind of pinpoint some subjective things that we think we see in some recruits that they can translate well at this level, then just really have to rely on development and putting in the time with these kids. So that’s probably the biggest difference I see between the two levels.
When did you know you wanted to be a wrestling coach?
Jensen: Probably when I was leaving Iowa State. I had two years under Cael and then one year under Kevin Jackson. I decided that Iowa State wasn’t the right fit for me anymore. I was looking for a new home. I didn’t want to just go somewhere for my last two years of eligibility then have to go move on in the real world somewhere else. It was somewhere I knew I wanted to go and potentially be a grad assistant and start my coaching role. So I wanted it to be at least a four-year venture transferring from Iowa State. That was something Coach Bauer had discussed with me when we were going through that recruiting process the second time. He was like, ‘I’d love to get you over here. I’ve been watching your career from afar and obviously had the chance to recruit you out of high school. I enjoyed you and enjoyed your family. I think you’re someone that would be a good fit for coming here and finishing the last couple years of eligibility and transitioning into a grad assistant role.’ Just kind of the way timing worked out that things kind of escalated quickly. I kind of fell right into that head assistant role right away as I finished my career and was the head assistant for Coach Bauer for four years before taking over that head position in 2016. As far as my college career, it’s not necessarily a career path that I would probably advise or recommend for people. I went through three different head coaches in five years, which is kind of crazy. But as far as my path and wanting to be a college wrestling coach it actually worked out really well that I got to experience and learn from three different high-level college coaches. So it was a huge benefit for me.
As an athlete, you were recruited by Cael Sanderson and coached by him at Iowa State. Obviously, Cael has gone on to win eight national championships as a head coach. What have you taken from Cael into your own coaching career?
Jensen: As far as personalities, I think I probably have a lot of similarities to Cael. I’m kind of an introvert and a little bit more reserved. I kind of had to carry a little bit more of a quiet confidence about me that I kind of see in Cael. That can be a great thing, but I think you have to counterbalance that with somebody that maybe is a little bit more vocal and a little bit more stern. For me that’s Coach Sorenson. But things I learned from Cael … obviously the technical aspect of what he’s doing is high level. The way he gets his athletes to peak when it really matters is super important. And just kind of the general touches that he had with the student athletes in an individual setting and really trying to get them to kind of relax and have fun and be able to bring out the best in their performances is something that I take from him.
You have won a national champion and coached national champions. Describe the difference in emotions.
Jensen: That’s definitely interesting. In 2012, I won an individual title and a team title. Then the next year I’m the head assistant coach and we won a team title again. It was completely different. When you are an athlete you are kind of just worried about yourself and controlling what you can control. In a weird way that is easy. And then that next year being in the coaching role and everything lining up to become team champs again and crowning two individual champs, you kind of reflect on that and understand winning a team title is really hard. A lot has to go the right way. It’s all out of your control. Obviously, you kind of set up the pins, get your guys ready, peak for the right time, encourage them and put them in a spot to go win. But at the end of the day they are the ones walking out there. That’s outside of your control when they’re out there for the seven minutes. There’s definitely a lot of finer details of being coaches, getting the guys ready, but it’s so rewarding when you see an athlete reach their potential. I think it’s actually more gratifying. I wouldn’t trade my individual title for anything, but the gratification that you get from watching an individual athlete go win their own national title and knowing you played a role in that makes a huge impact. It’s something that I probably enjoy more than winning one myself.
You qualified for the NCAA Division I tournament in 2010 at 141 pounds. That bracket was won by Kyle Dake, a true freshman at the time. You wrestled Dake that season in a dual meet and lost 7-1. Did you know back in 2010 that Dake could go on to be an all-time great?
Jensen: I think he was already ranked No. 2 or No. 3 when that dual meet came around in January. We knew it was going to be a challenging match for me. I knew that he brought a lot to the table. I think he had suffered a couple of losses, maybe a month prior. It would have been hard to predict he would go on to be a four-time national champion in four different weight classes and become a multiple-time world champ. But at that point there was uniqueness to his style, how good his hips were and how good he was on top. You kind of knew he was going to be elite. I’d wrestled Reece Humphrey a couple times that year. I kind of thought he was probably the guy to beat. I think Dake ended up beating him in overtime in the NCAA semifinals that year. So it was definitely a quality weight to evaluate when you have Kyle Dake, who has done what he’s done. And then obviously a guy like Reese Humphrey, who made multiple world teams. So I was definitely in elite company. I was just a couple pegs away … a couple pegs down the food chain.
When you look ahead to this season, obviously your program is expected to contend for a national title. Do you look at what needs to happen to accomplish that goal?
Jensen: I’m pretty analytical, so I like to kind of objectify things. Looking at this past season, 105.5 points would have done it for the last eight years. I told this to our guys following the national championships, had we not scored that many points I don’t think St. Cloud State would have scored that many points. So I think we kind of lit a fire under them. We got them positioned where they were trying to match us for points at the national championships. They outperformed us where it really mattered and that’s how they walked away with it.
So looking ahead to this next year, we have the same team coming back for the most part. I don’t think there’s anything we really need to change. I think we just need to continue to fine tune little things and keep getting better. I think the team we had is very capable of winning the national championship. It just wasn’t in 2021. So we’re hoping things will be a little bit different in 2022. When you lose by a point and a half, obviously that’s like a win anywhere. So there’s lots of what-ifs. I think that’s a team that was capable of scoring 120 to 130 points. All the stars have to line up on the right day and we just didn’t quite have that. They performed well, but I think they are capable of more. I’m excited to see what this season holds.
Kamaru Usman is one of the all-time greats in the program. Now he’s a UFC champion, arguably the best pound for pound across all divisions, undefeated in the UFC. Has his UFC success help bring awareness to your program?
Jensen: I think so. In some sense, yeah … I think people are very familiar with our program and Kamaru has definitely kind of spiked that interest. Every time I walk the athletic facility here I see our team national championship pictures up on the wall. That 2008 one, you’ve got Tervel Dlagnev and Kamaru Usman standing right next to each other in the photo. It’s an Olympic bronze medalist and a UFC champ standing next to each other in a 2008 photo at a Division II school. So to have those guys go on and do something that special is incredibly rare. Tervel, coming from a Division II school, has been a great poster child for our program for so many years and continues to be. And Usman doing what he’s done the last few years is just incredible. He’s definitely brought our program to a big spotlight.
Tervel Dlagnev is back in Nebraska after being hired as head coach of the Nebraska Wrestling Training Center. What does it mean to have him back in the state?
Jensen: It’s awesome. He’s someone that’s really stayed in touch with our program, even when he was at Ohio State. During the [Division II] national tournament this year I probably had a couple dozen texts from him. He was just kind of worried about the team race, how things are going and how he thinks guys are going to do. He’s really in tune with how well our program has been doing and he has a vested interest in seeing us be successful. Even when he was at Ohio State, he would come back to Kearney a couple times a year and is always willing and wanting to work with our guys. Now that he’s just a couple hours down the road I think he will want to continue to do that and help us in any way that he can. Super excited to have him just down the road.