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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - The saying is, "close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."
University of Northern Iowa's Ryan Loder isn't concerned with ringers or explosives. He wrestles, so close doesn't cut it.
The junior 184-pounder has come one win shy of All-American honors the last two seasons, and is determined to capture a medal at the 2013 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. Competition begins Thursday morning at 11 a.m. and concludes with the championship bouts Saturday night.
The sixth-seeded Loder (30-4) begins his attempt to soothe the sting of his previous national tournament finishes against Binghamton's Cody Reed (18-13).
"It was very discouraging the last two years to get top-12 and not be able to come away with something," Loder said. "One match or two points is the difference between being an All-American and just another wrestler. It was hard to take, but I use it to build. I think I'm better because of it."
UNI Coach Doug Schwab has witnessed Loder turn the negative into a positive. He has become a great leader for the Panthers, spending added time in the practice room to improve and applying coaches' advice more often. Schwab said it is time to reap the rewards with five solid matches.
"He's been close but close is not enough for him," Schwab said. "It's left a real sour taste in his mouth and he's using it the right way."
Loder anticipated this moment for an entire year. The consolation loss to Nebraska's Josh Ihnen, eliminating him from the 2012 national tournament, forced him to narrow his focus. He gained a new perspective of his priorities.
"I put everything aside that didn't help me, so if it didn't help then I didn't do it," Loder said. "I did a lot of the right things, but now I'm doing everything right."
The product has been impressive results. Loder has the third most wins in the 33-man NCAA bracket, and has recorded seven pins, three technical falls and six major decisions. Loder has pushed his career win total to 95, entering the NCAA Championships.
"This year, it's all come together," Loder said. "I planned out what I needed to work on. I've done all the necessary preparations for this tournament."
His four losses have been by a combined six points. He has only lost once since the new year, avenging one of his losses twice and dropping two matches to Oklahoma red-shirt and former All-American Travis Rutt.
"He's made a big jump in the last two-and-a-months," Schwab said. "He's made as big of a jump as I've seen in his whole career, which is exciting for him, who has always performed."
Central Michigan's second-seeded Ben Bennett (27-0) beat Loder, 5-3, in the Mid-American Conference finals. The match confirmed he could contend with the nation's best.
"That was an extremely winnable match," Schwab said. "He had opportunities to put that in his favor."
Loder has maintained his strength on top and escaping from foes, and improved his defense and positioning. He has shown a stronger leg attack from neutral, leading to a more confident competitor.
"He's a smart kid," Schwab said. "He evaluated. He had a list of things he needed to improve and he's done those things."
Loder said he has put himself in position to challenge everyone and is set to grab that elusive medal.
"I think I'm in a really good spot to do some damage out there and get on the podium," Loder said. "I'm happy to be here. I've been waiting a whole year for it. It's exciting to get back at it and have this opportunity to show everyone how hard I've worked."
Schwab shares Loder's confidence. The three-time NCAA qualifier has already displayed the traits he will need to be successful this week.
"There's nothing to indicate to me that he's not going to have a great tournament," Schwab said. "He's done the preparation and he's had the experience, being down there and having disappointments, and he has learned from it. Now, it's time to get over the hump."
The Panthers' Levi Wolfensperger (133), Joey Lazor at 141 and 157-pounder David Bonin also qualified.
Lazor and Bonin claimed MAC titles, while Wolfensperger finished second, advancing to the finals with a win over eighth-ranked and former All-American Scott Sentes of Central Michigan. Lazor has not lost since December.
Ninth-seeded Wolfensperger opens with Davidson's Anthony Elias (11-8). Lazor will wrestle Army's Connor Hanafee (21-13) in a first-round pigtail match. Bonin has Navy's Bobby Barnhisel (31-6) in the first round.
"They wrestled very well," Schwab said about the MAC tournament. "I like how we competed against some of the best guys in the country and we were able to beat some of the best. Now, it's doing it on consecutive days or consecutive matches."