Rau setting sights on NCAA title
ELMHURST, Ill. - When Elmhurst College's Joe Rau takes to the mat at this weekend's NCAA Division III Wrestling Championship, he'll have one goal in mind; to culminate an impressive junior season by becoming a national champion.
Wrestling at 184 pounds for the Bluejays, Rau earned All-American accolades in 2011 by placing seventh at the NCAA Championships, but he wasn't satisfied with his performance.
"Everyone who heads to the NCAA Championships has a goal of winning a national title," Rau said. "That was my goal last year, but obviously I just didn't perform well enough to get it done. This year, I feel that obtaining that goal is more tangible."
After returning from the 2011 NCAA Championships, Rau wasted little time in starting to prepare for this season. He spent a few weeks at United States Olympic Training Center and competed in some top-level tournaments.
"One thing that stands out for me is that Joe didn't get complacent after last season," said Elmhurst head coach Steve Marianetti. "I've seen a lot of wrestlers become All-Americans and then just assume they can do it again without putting in a lot of work. Joe wrestled every chance he could over the summer and fall and when he wasn't on the mat, he was in the weight room."
If Marianetti had any questions about whether Rau's hard work would pay off, he received his answer with Rau's performance at the Concordia (Wis.) Open, the Bluejays' first tournament of the year. A technical fall followed by a pair of major decisions and Rau had breezed into the finals. In the championship match, he faced 2010 All-American and returning national qualifier Dylan Azinger of Wartburg. After three periods, Rau walked away with his hand raised in a dominating 10-3 victory.
"We knew that Joe was capable of having a great year, but his win against Azinger really opened up a lot of people's eyes," said Marianetti. "It was at that point that we knew he was in store for an excellent season. He was already incredibly powerful last season, and he's come back even stronger this year."
Rau's strength was on display at the 2011 Championships in an elimination match. As he faced Johnson & Wales' Brennan Ward, the 2010 national runner-up, the score was deadlocked headed to the third period. Ward elected to start down hoping for a quick escape point, but Rau dominated the entire two-minute period, picking up a riding time point and scoring near fall points near the end of the match.
"Joe is incredibly tough when he's wrestling from the top position," said Marianetti. "He's certainly one of the strongest wrestlers I've coached in my entire career and he has the ability to turn any wrestler in the country."
Rau opened the year by winning 13 straight matches. At the end of December he and teammate Dalton Bullard competed in Northwestern's prestigious Midlands Tournament, something Rau had been waiting on for years.
"I started watching the Midlands when I was in grammar school," he said. "I had been talking about competing there since I was a freshman, but Coach Marianetti kept telling me I wasn't ready yet. This year he gave me the go-ahead."
At the Midlands, Rau won his opening match before falling 11-5 to the top-ranked wrestler in Division I. In the consolation bracket, Rau ripped off four straight wins including an 18-4 major decision over seventh-seeded John Dickson of Virginia Tech. The win over Dickson moved Rau into the place matches where he ended up taking sixth place, becoming the first Elmhurst wrestler to reach the medal stand at the Midlands.
"My performance gave me a boost in my confidence, but it was a learning experience for me as well," he said. "Watching my matches on video I realized that there were a few mistakes I made that I may have gotten away with in the past, but the top-notch guys were going to take advantage of it."
Since the conclusion of the Midlands, Rau has rattled off 13 straight victories and carries a 30-3 record into the NCAA Championships. Over 20 of his wins have been by major decision, technical fall or pin. Ranked third for the entire year in the National Wrestling Coaches Division III poll, he's seeded second of the 18 wrestlers vying for the title at 184 pounds. But, don't bother to ask Rau about rankings or seedings.
"I stay away from looking at the rankings," he said. "When I was in high school I spent too much time focusing on rankings and looking at who had beaten who and I let it get in my head. Now, I just go out and wrestle to the best of my ability in every match without worrying about who I'm facing."
Encouraged by a neighbor, Rau began wrestling when he was just six years old and quickly fell in love with the sport. "Wrestling was completely my own thing when I was growing up," he said. "No one else in my family had wrestled and it really was a perfect blend because it let me be competitive and aggressive in a controlled environment. Despite the fact that there's no professional level to move into like baseball or football, wrestling is the most rewarding sport I've ever participated in."
This weekend Rau will have a chance to score the ultimate reward – an NCAA Championship. His path to the NCAA championship will start on Friday when he faces the Merchant Marine Academy's Erik Schott in the first round.