Interim coach Mark Matzek, 26, is firmly dedicated to the Auggies' philosophy, under which he competed only a few years ago.
As a product of Augsburg's wrestling culture, Mark Matzek knew all about the expectations and standards that come with being part of a 10-time NCAA Division III national champion. Among them: Do not lose to St. John's.
Matzek, only four years removed from his own days as an Auggies wrestler, faced the Johnnies on Nov. 26 in his first dual meet as interim head coach. Augsburg lost 18-13, falling to St. John's for the first time in 23 years -- and at home to boot. The defeat ended a 92-meet win streak against MIAC opponents that dated to 1986.
That stunning loss marked a turning point for Matzek and his team. The young coach reminded his wrestlers that tradition notwithstanding, nothing comes without a price. Since then, Augsburg has ascended to the No. 1 ranking in D-III, knocking off top-ranked Wartburg while winning eight of its past nine dual meets.
"Just because you're part of this program doesn't mean you're entitled to win anything,'' said Matzek, who took over after Sam Barber's unexpected resignation last July. "When I was here, I learned the importance of working hard and improving every single day. That's what our program is built on.
"When I took this position, I was a little nervous; this is not a run-of-the-mill program. But I'm not too far removed from competing myself, and I know what it takes to become a champion. From that meet against St. John's, we've improved, to a man.''
It might seem risky to place Augsburg's formidable wrestling reputation into the hands of a 26-year-old. Not to athletic director Jeff Swenson, who helped build it during a quarter-century span as coach that began when he was only 22.
Swenson retired from coaching in 2007. Matzek wrestled for him then became his assistant. A two-time national champion at 133 pounds, Matzek helped the Auggies to two national team titles and two runner-up finishes while compiling a 129-21 record.
In his former athlete, Swenson saw a quick study and a fine wrestling mind as dedicated to the Auggies' philosophy as he is. Matzek asked for one favor: that Swenson join him on the staff as an assistant.
"I have no problem taking orders,'' Swenson said with a laugh. "I believe in Mark. I've had a 30-year love affair with Augsburg wrestling, and I know he'll do everything in his power to keep our program at a successful level.''
Matzek admitted to a steep learning curve as a rookie head coach, but his eight assistants -- and a rigorous attention to detail -- have eased the way. So has the ethos of the Auggies' wrestling room, where the program's foundations thrive through the high-intensity daily competition in a gym full of seriously motivated athletes.
The 49 wrestlers on Augsburg's roster include Seth Flodeen, the D-III national champ at 125 pounds last season; Jason Adams, national runner-up at 141; and Travis Lang, an All-America at 133. The 21 freshmen -- one of Augsburg's largest first-year classes -- include state champions Tony Valek and Torey Stewart. Valek (141) and fellow rookie Brandon Bahr (165) have earned important victories, as has Jared Massey, who returned to wrestling after a four-year absence.
Massey, a former state champ at Centennial, competed for Wisconsin in 2003-04 but left the sport because of chronic injuries. While working as a bouncer, he stayed in shape by training with former teammates. This season, he is 16-1 and ranked No. 2 at 197 pounds.
"If I wasn't here, I'm not sure I'd be back in wrestling,'' Massey said. "To be able to be part of a national championship program, where people expect to be the best, that's what brought me here.''
Massey said the St. John's loss provoked a recommitment throughout the roster. Friday, the Auggies will get another chance to measure their progress when they face No. 2 Wartburg at Si Melby Hall.
Swenson said he is moving as quickly as possible to name a permanent head coach. Matzek, no longer the nervous newcomer, hopes he can continue in his mentor's path.
"I sure do want it,'' he said. "Not only because it's a great job, but because of everything it entails. It's an honor to be part of this program.''
Rachel Blount • email@example.com