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LARAMIE, Wyo. – Nebraska junior Paul Donahoe is hoping the NCAA title he won provides inspiration to his teammates.

“Especially after they see me win it with my small little arms,” Donahoe said, flashing a smile.

Donahoe is the first to admit he doesn’t possess the classic, chiseled physique of an elite wrestler.

But nobody can question the heart, drive and determination of a wrestler known for his razor-sharp focus, his fiercely competitive nature and his superior conditioning.

All those traits were on full display last March at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich. That’s when the sixth-seeded Donahoe delivered a stunning performance in knocking off the No. 3, No. 2 and No. 1 seeds in succession to win the NCAA championship at 125 pounds.

“Paul’s work ethic is second to none,” Nebraska coach Mark Manning said. “Part of Paul’s secret is he wrestles harder than his opponent. They don’t have a second to rest.”

That was evident when Donahoe downed No. 3 seed Tanner Gardner of Stanford 8-3 in the quarterfinals before following with a 2-1 double-overtime win in the semifinals over No. 2 seed and 2006 NCAA runner-up Troy Nickerson of Cornell.

Donahoe then avenged a 12-3 loss in the Big 12 finals by scoring on a single-leg takedown in overtime to pull out a dramatic 3-1 NCAA finals win over No. 1 seed Sam Hazewinkel of Oklahoma.

“We came up with a great game plan against Hazewinkel,” Donahoe said. “I didn’t take any bad shots and I didn’t give up any stupid takedowns. I kept moving and controlled the ties.”

Donahoe rasied both arms in celebration after the win before running over to the corner and jumping into the arms of Manning and then-NU assistant coach Sammie Henson.

It was an emotional moment for Donahoe, who won the title just 30 miles from where he grew up in Davison, Mich.

“I improved my technique and became stronger,” Donahoe said. “I trained hard the whole season and I was ready for the NCAA tournament. My freshman year my goal was to be an All-American. Last season I said, ‘I’m going to go out there and win it.’”

Donahoe starts the 2007-08 season in a new role as the top-ranked wrestler in the country at 125 pounds. Among the wrestlers returning at 125 are Nickerson and Gardner, along with fellow All-Americans in Angel Escobedo of Indiana, Jayson Ness of Minnesota, Obe Blanc of Lock Haven and Charlie Falck of Iowa.

Donahoe is the lone All-American back on a talented young Husker team that was ranked anywhere from No. 7 to No. 14 nationally in the preseason.

The Nebraska roster features only one senior in national qualifier Jon May at heavyweight. The Huskers also return national qualifiers in Robert Sanders (141), Jordan Burroughs (149), Chris Oliver (157), Stephen Dwyer (165), Vince Jones (184) and Craig Brester (197). Junior-college national champion Kenny Jordan (133) and top newcomer Brandon Browne (174) complete the NU lineup.

May missed last season with a knee injury while Jones and Browne did not compete for academic reasons.

“This season is going to be a lot more enjoyable because we have a lot stronger team,” Donahoe said last Friday after recording a fall in Nebraska’s season-opening shutout at Wyoming. “We have 10 solid wrestlers in our lineup now. Hopefully, this is Nebraska’s best team ever.”

Donahoe will receive a strong early test on Monday night when he faces Ness in the NWCA All-Star Dual at the University of Oregon. The Minnesota sophomore handed Donahoe two of his five losses last season.

“I’m definitely looking forward to that match,” Donahoe said. “I had the lead and lost to him in overtime last year. It’s always good to wrestle tough competition like that. It’s only going to make you better.”

Donahoe has benefited from the influences of Henson, a past NCAA and World champion, and past NCAA champion Jason Powell during his time in Lincoln. Both have trained with and coached Donahoe. Henson is now an assistant coach at Cal Poly and Powell is at Oregon.

“Sammie made me a smarter wrestler and really made me focus on a lot of the little things,” Donahoe said. “Jason Powell had a great impact on me. He helped me improve my skills, especially wrestling down on the mat.”

Donahoe was a two-time Michigan state champion for the powerhouse program at Davison High School. Among his teammates in high school were a pair of top collegiate newcomers in Iowa’s Brent Metcalf and Iowa State’s Jon Reader.

Donahoe said he also drew recruiting interest from Michigan and Michigan State coming out of high school.

“Jason Powell was at Nebraska and they also still had Matt Keller at 133 when they were recruiting me,” Donahoe said. “I knew I would have great workout partners if I went to Nebraska.”

Donahoe twice won Junior Nationals in freestyle. He said he plans to jump back into freestyle competition again following the college season.

Donahoe did not place at his first NCAA Championships as a freshman in 2006 in Oklahoma City. Seeded 10th, he knocked off No. 7 seed Jeremy Mendoza of Arizona State in the second round. He then lost to the second-seeded Hazewinkel in the quarterfinals before falling to No. 6 seed Coleman Scott of Oklahoma State in his next match.

“I lost nine matches as a freshman and seven of them were to those two,” Donahoe said of Scott and Hazewinkel. “I learned a lot from wrestling those guys and it pushed me to improve last season.”

Donahoe is looking to become the first two-time NCAA champion for a Nebraska program that has produced its share of standouts who have gone on to excel at the international level.

Among the wrestlers who have won NCAA titles for the Huskers are World champion Bill Scherr, World silver medalists Jim Scherr and Brad Vering, and World bronze medalist Tolly Thompson.

“We’ve had a lot of great wrestlers at Nebraska, but none who have won multiple titles,” Manning said. “I know we have guys on our team like Paul who are capable of doing that.”

Manning said Donahoe is prepared for what comes with being a returning national champion.

“Our focus is on winning another national championship and not about defending what we’ve already done,” Manning said. “Paul has really kept everything in good perspective. He’s a very driven kid. He’s a competitor who wants to win every match.”

Manning said Donahoe has set a great example for his teammates.

“Paul is an extremely hard worker,” Manning said. “He not only wants to win, he wants to dominate. He brings a spark to our team. He’s a high-energy wrestler who is such a fighter. The guys on our team feed off how competitive he is.

“Paul really pushes his teammates and wants everybody else to do well. He’s very excited about being on a good team. That means a lot to him.”

Donahoe said he is ready for the challenge of trying to repeat as NCAA champion.

“It’s always hard to win the NCAA tournament, whether you’re the returning champion or not,” he said. “It pushes me even harder to know people are looking to knock me off.”

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