MARSHALL - The excitement was palpable around the Southwest Minnesota State wrestling room Monday afternoon, head coach Jesse Nelson beaming with a smile that stretched from ear to ear.
Nelson began the day with three wrestlers heading to the NCAA Division II Wrestling National Championships. By noon the number had grown to four when he was informed via email that junior Travis Peralta was awarded a qualifying spot as an injury replacement in the 184-pound division. Peralta had placed fifth at the Super Region 3 Tournament on Feb. 23, one spot from qualifying for nationals. With an injury to Augustan's Sean Derry, who took fourth at the region tournament, Peralta was in.
"I think it's going to be a great thing for our program because we talked to our guys about, no matter what happens throughout that region tournament, come out and fight, kick, scratch, whatever you have to do to place," Nelson said. "Travis had a great tournament and he beat a three-time All-American to get fifth, and it worked out for him.
"We feel bad for Augie's guys because he's a tough guy, a good kid, but obviously we feel great about Travis getting this opportunity and it sends a message to the rest of our guys that you have to prepare, it doesn't matter what happened throughout the rest of the year, you just have to get after it and take advantage of your opportunity, and Travis did that."
Peralta joins SMSU freshman Kyle Begin (174 pounds) and juniors Justin Reinsma (133) and Jacob Begin (165) as part of SMSU's contingent that will compete at the national championships Friday and Saturday in Birmingham, Ala. It's the most national qualifiers Nelson has had in his six years leading the Mustangs and is another landmark in the program's rise from the basement of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
Nelson inherited a meager 15-man roster when he became head coach in 2007 and the his team initially struggled to compete. As he built up the talent pool the Mustangs' win total rose from zero to three to four to eight to 10. This season, SMSU compiled a 13-6 overall record and went toe to toe with some of the powers in the NSIC.
"It's been a work in progress," Nelson said. "Those first couple of years were pretty tough, especially that first year going 0-11. Coming from a program that I came from that was pretty successful, that was very humbling for me.
"Just seeing all the work that these kids have put in, all the work that my assistants have put in, myself too, we're starting to see that pay off and are moving this program forward and it's pretty exciting."
Reinsma was the Mustangs' lone representative at nationals last season and he won All-American honors with a seventh-place finish. A graduate of Murray County Central High School in Slayton, he is one of several local wrestlers from southwest Minnesota that Nelson has brought in to strengthen the squad. All four nationals qualifiers hail from Minnesota, as Peralta is from Thief River Falls and the Begins are from Anoka.
As SMSU's win totals have grown, so has the pride in the program. Reinsma said he and his fellow national qualifiers are ready to show just how far the Mustangs have come by making their presence felt in Birmingham.
"We can all go down there and we can all make a good run at it and I think we can represent Southwest really well," he said. "I think we all have the capabilities to go down there and do really well. These guys have been in here year round and they train hard and this is just another way to build on it."
With a returning All-American and two wrestlers nationally ranked in the Top 10 in their respective weight classes (Jacob Begin is No. 5 at 165 pounds and Kyle Begin is No. 7 at 174) Nelson is confident that the Mustangs will indeed represent SMSU well at nationals. And he can't wait to see it.
"All of these guys are pretty talented individuals," he said. "If they go down and wrestle to the best of their abilities and take care of business, wrestle their match, I think all four of these guys can do a great job.
"We're excited. Obviously there's a lot of added excitement with adding Travis, but I think we can go down there and all these guys can compete at a high level and it will be a lot of fun to watch them."