CRETE, Neb. – Ceron Francisco and Kirk Kaliszewski won individual titles while fueling the GPAC champion Concordia University wrestling team to a third-straight NAIA North Qualifier/GPAC tournament crown. Eight Bulldogs locked up berths to the national championships and helped pile up 132.5 team points, 10 more than second place Morningside (122.5). The 2017 event was hosted in Crete, Neb., by Doane.
First-year head coach Andrew Nicola’s squad completed a dominant run against conference opponents. Concordia also won the GPAC dual championship with a perfect 7-0 record.
“This is one of those events that really did come down to the wire,” Nicola said. “Obviously I’m very proud of the efforts that the boys gave today. It was definitely an emotional rollercoaster kind of a day. As a coaching staff, we’re proud of our guys for stepping up and rising to the occasion. It was not an easy day. There were some heartbreaks and some triumphant victories.”
Francisco defended his 2016 north title in impressive fashion. He pinned his first two opponents to blaze to the semifinal round in the heavyweight bracket. He then majored Briar Cliff’s No. 11 Brian Ervin, 13-2. Then in the championship bout, Francisco defeated Midland’s 13th-ranked James Jones, 9-5. Nearly unbeatable this season, Francisco is 23-2 this year and now owns 97 career victories.
“Ceron looked great,” Nicola said. “In his semifinals he got a major, but he looked a little sluggish and a little tired. In his finals match he said felt great and was back to himself. That showed in the finals with another win over a nationally-ranked opponent.”
Ranked No. 1 in the region, Kaliszewski backed up his ranking. He went 3-0 on the day and then defeated Morningside’s Derik Bailey, 3-2, in the 165-pound title tussle. That win clinched the team title for Concordia, which got pushed hard by the Mustangs. Kaliszewski has been on a roll, winning eight matches in a row.
“Kirk came out guns blazing,” Nicola said. “It’s difficult to keep up with the pace that Kirk keeps. He’s been wrestling really well. Today he put it together. He’s been doing that the last couple weeks.”
Four other Bulldogs also claimed top-three place finishes, sewing up trips to the national tournament in two weeks. For the second-straight year, Ken Burkhardt Jr. fell in the 197-pound title match. The winningest wrestler in program history, Burkhardt Jr. got to the final by pinning Jacob Spencer of Briar Cliff and then by taking a 6-3 decision over No. 13 Jeremiah Gerl of Hastings. Burkhardt Jr. narrowly lost to Luis Rivera-Santiago, 5-3, on the big stage.
Three different Bulldogs placed third in their weight classes: Foster Bunce (141), Josh Nelsen (184) and Alexander Reimers (197). Each of them will be headed to the national championships in Topeka, Kan. DJ McIntyre (285) and Dmitri Smith (125) both finished fourth, but received wild card invites to nationals.
Eleven of the 12 Bulldogs that competed placed in the top six. The Concordia dozen combined on a collective record of 28-17 for the day. Though he placed sixth at 133 pounds, Cole still has a shot to earn a bid to nationals if chosen through the NAIA selection process. Both Burkhardt Jr. and Cole are two-time All-Americans.
“We came into the day thinking we would get seven to 10 (to nationals) and we came in on the high end of that,” Nicola said. “We’re proud of them. We have two more weeks of work to put in. We’re going to keep our eye on the prize and train for national titles.”
Concordia NAIA North place finishes
125 – Dmitri Smith (4th)
133 – Kodie Cole (6th)
141 – Foster Bunce (3rd)
157 – Jon Lado (5th)
165 – Kirk Kaliszewski (1st)
174 – Walker Fisher (5th)
184 – Josh Nelsen (3rd)
197 – Ken Burkhardt Jr. (2nd)
197 – Alexander Reimers (3rd)
285 – Ceron Francisco (1st)
285 – DJ McIntyre (4th)