Even before he was crowned a Division III national champion, Daniel Del Gallo had a feeling the rest of the field was in trouble.

“I really thought it from the beginning,” he said. “I didn’t plan on losing. I planned on wrestling as hard as I could for every match. I knew if just did that, I could win the whole thing.”

Del Gallo’s hunch was correct.

The Gardiner graduate and University of Southern Maine senior finished his career in grand style with a national championship at 149 pounds, defeating Cornell College’s Aaron Engle, 4-1, in the final match.

Del Gallo wrote down his goals at the start of the season, one being to set the school wins record and the other to win a national title. At the two-day tournament in La Crosse, Wisconsin, he accomplished both.

“It’s pretty amazing when you lay your goals out and accomplish them,” said Del Gallo, whose victory over Engle was the 137th win of his career. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet, completely. … It’s been an awesome journey. Not even just these past four years, but ever since I can remember.”

Seeded fourth in the tournament, Del Gallo — who had gone 2-4 in two previous trips to nationals — got rolling, beating Concordia-Moorhead’s Ty Johnson, 13-1, and pinning Wesleyan’s Carter Armendarez before upsetting two-time national champion Kenny Martin of Wartburg College, 7-5, in the semifinals.

“After the semis, I knew it was going to happen,” Del Gallo said. “I had full confidence going into the final match that I could do this and I could walk away a champion.”

That left only Engle, and by then, the USM coaches had seen him enough to arm Del Gallo with a strategy.

“They knew what he was doing all tournament,” Del Gallo said. “So we came in with a gameplan, and that gameplan was that he was going to come at me, he was going to wrestle me hard all seven minutes, and I could ride him.”

The first period ended without a point, but Del Gallo chose the bottom position to start the second period and immediately slipped away, getting a point for an escape. It was the only point going into the third round, but Del Gallo’s plan began to work as he got a point for riding time in addition to two for a near fall. Engle salvaged a point with an escape, but Del Gallo knew he had the match won, and when the countdown started, he knew it was official.

“There’s a guy that comes on the mat, and he yells to the ref … to count it down,” he said. “Once I heard that guy’s voice, I started backing off and I knew I had won at that point. It was very exciting. I had my hands in the air. It was an amazing feeling.”

It’s the first national championship in USM’s history, and it caps one of the program’s best careers.

“Everyone’s watching that match, it’s up on a stage, the lights are dimmed down, everyone is into the match. The crowd’s going wild,” Del Gallo said. “It was amazing to win there, but then after, running off the stage and into the back room, it just kind of hits you. It’s just a real sense of relief and happiness, knowing that I accomplished my goal.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM