If you’ve kept up with Concordia wrestling for the past four years, then you likely know something about Ceron Francisco’s story. The soft spoken, but baritone-voiced Francisco went from inexperienced wrestler to surprise All-American in 2015 just a year after turning in a losing record as a freshman.
As a refresher, the high school sophomore version of Francisco, who attended Douglas Byrd in Fayetteville, N.C., stood at 5-foot-4. He had never wrestled in his life. By the time former head coach Dana Vote laid eyes on Francisco, then a senior competing at a showcase in Virginia Beach, the game had changed. Vote called The Tar Heel State native “the biggest high school kid I’ve ever seen in my life.”
With maturity, intense dedication and the kind of discipline rarely seen in not just college athletes, but anyone, Francisco has put together a special collegiate career. He’s made a complete 180 from his freshman season. He admits he had a long ways to go when he came on the scene.
“I’m just more mature, I believe,” Francisco said. “And I didn’t know what it took to be good back then. I had coach Vote mentor me. He believed in me so I believed in myself. I knew what work I had to do to get to the next level.”
Francisco went to the next level, then kept going. On Wednesday, the conference named him the GPAC wrestler of the year, a fitting honor for someone whose arrival coincided with the ascension of the program into a conference and regional powerhouse and national player.
The humble giant now will have his name mentioned with the likes of past teammates who were also conference wrestlers of the year: Emilio Rivera (2013-14), Enrique Barajas (2014-15) and Andrew Schulte (2015-16). That’s some impressive company to keep.
“It’s pretty cool watching the program grow and being able to grow with the program,” Francisco said. “Those were some great wrestlers. I guess I can be considered part of their legacy in keeping the award here.”
Those who have been around Francisco understand how deserving he is of this honor. The award is a symbol of the commitment he made to a program he knew very little about until first encountering Vote in Virginia Beach.
On campus, Francisco has gone from a fascination – largely because of his stature and physical appearance separated him – to an obvious fan favorite and to one of the most respected student-athletes at Concordia. Pastor Ryan Matthias, who serves as public address announcer for wrestling, paused while reading the senior day message for Francisco at the team’s home finale. Choked up, Matthias had to take a moment to gather himself.
Read Francisco’s senior quote, “I am thankful for the families that have welcomed me into their hearts, the professors who believed in me and my teammates who have grown with me. I’m a proud Bulldog.”
The Feb. 9 senior night, which ended with a dominant Concordia win that wrapped up the GPAC dual title, was teary-eyed one for Francisco and a large group of seniors. “I was pretty emotional just thinking about all the things we’ve been through as a team,” Francisco said. “I was just happy to be part of the program. This has been a consistent family for me the past four years. I was just overcome with emotion thinking about the great things we’ve done as a team and as a family.”
The first nine bouts of a Concordia home dual are somewhat of an appetizer, or a build up to the thunder waiting to happen. On senior night, Francisco brought the house down one last time. He tore his opponent apart, then pinned him. Walz exploded with the approval worthy of a beloved human being.
In an iconic moment, Francisco acknowledged the crowd by holding up three fingers, recognizing the program’s run of three-straight conference championships.
“Ceron is a man of integrity and character,” said first-year head coach Andrew Nicola. “He’s a great Christian young man. He does great thing in the classroom. He does a lot of community service. He’s a special education major and he wants to help people. That’s the person he is. He works hard for everything that he earns. You can’t hold that guy down. He’s not just a wrestler. He’s someone we’re very proud of.”
Francisco is 23-2 this year. He’s in a zone. It would be foolish to take it for granted, for what Francisco has given Concordia from an on- and off-the-mat perspective is immense.
“I always say God’s will is what’s been carrying me,” Francisco said. “I can focus on performance. I know if I wrestle to my best abilities, I can’t be beat. I can’t focus on winning, but I can focus on how I wrestle and what I can control.”