TOPEKA, Kan. – Tears of joy flowed for both Ken Burkhardt Jr. and Ceron Francisco on the opening day of the 2017 NAIA Wrestling National Championships. Both senior standouts are bound for the national semifinals of their respective brackets after perfect efforts on Friday. They were the team’s headlining performers on a day that saw the nine Bulldog national qualifiers combine for a total of 11 wins while competing at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka, Kan.
As a team, first-year head coach Andrew Nicola’s squad sits in 15th place with 26 points. Concordia is in line for its fourth top-25 finish in a row while following the lead of its two big guns.
“Ceron was very excited as everyone saw – and rightfully so,” Nicola said. “He’s guaranteed top six and is an All-American again. For Ken, he’s the first three-time All-American in school history and was the first to 100 wins in school history. They’re wrestling great right now.”
The quarterfinal wins for Burkhardt Jr., the seventh-seeded 197-pounder, and Francisco, the third-seeded heavyweight, came one right after the other. Burkhardt Jr. jumped out to a 7-2 lead and then held off No. 2 John Hensley of Great Falls (Mont.), 7-5. A native of Milford, Neb., Burkhardt Jr. has outperformed his pre-tournament positioning for the third year in a row.
Win No. 122 of Burkhardt Jr.’s career set off a wave of emotion. The winningest wrestler in program history pointed at his family, seated in the front row by mat 2, and then hugged everyone in sight.
“It was just a huge relief,” Burkhardt Jr. said. “With all that support group, I didn’t want to let them down. To All-America, I just want to thank God, my coaches, my team and Concordia for this opportunity.”
All three of Burkhardt Jr’s matches went down to the wire. He opened up the day by defeating David Dow of Baker (Kan.), 8-6. In a close bout with 10th-seeded Tanner Fischer of Southern Oregon, Burkhardt Jr. waited until the closing seconds of the third period to strike for his 13th pin of the season.
Francisco’s quarterfinal bout was already underway by the time Burkhardt Jr. locked up his spot in the semifinals. The native of Fayetteville, N.C., was fueled by a disappointing finish at the 2016 national championships. He wanted to ensure that he wouldn’t go home empty handed in his final run in Topeka.
“There was a lot of built up emotion from not doing what I was capable of last year, not placing,” Francisco said. “All of the people around me have believed in me – my coaches and my family in Seward. I just felt all the love. It was a frustrating match, but once I won the match, I just released all of the built up emotion I’ve been holding in for a long time.”
Friday marked the end of the line for four seniors: Foster Bunce (141), Kodie Cole (133), DJ McIntyre (285) and Dmitri Smith (125). Cole had made a habit of rising to the occasion on the national stage. He earned All-America honors as both a sophomore and junior. In his last go round, Cole came up short of clinching a spot on the podium. His career concluded with a 13-2 major decision loss at the hands of sixth-seeded Blaysen Terukina of Menlo College (Calif.). Cole went 2-2 on the day.
Smith was making his third national tournament appearance in hopes of collecting his first career All-America award. In the blood round, Smith entered the third period with a 3-2 lead over No. 8 Mason Naifeh of Oklahoma City, but ended up falling, 14-5, leaving him one victory short of an All-America plaque.
Concordia’s other national qualifiers were Kirk Kaliszewski, NAIA North Qualifier 165-pound champion, Josh Nelsen (184) and Alexander Reimers (197).
Last season Andrew Schulte became the program’s first-ever national champion. Burkhardt Jr. and Francisco carry hopes of adding their names to the list. Burkhardt Jr. will go head-to-head with third-seeded Evan Hansen of Grand View (Iowa) while Francisco will square off with No. 2 Jacob Laden, also of Grand View. Francisco has won once and lost once this season in bouts with Laden. Burkhardt Jr. topped Hansen, 4-2, at the Missouri Valley Invite.
“Both of these guys are Grand View guys. They’re a high level five-time defending national champion program. I guarantee they’re going to be ready to go,” Nicola said. “But the outlook is good if we wrestle our best.”
The action in Topeka will resume at 10 a.m. CT on Saturday. The finals matches will begin at 7 p.m. from the Expocentre.