TOPEKA, Kan. – It was a fitting ride for a Bulldog athletic great that will be long remembered. With an inspiring weekend performance, Ceron Francisco captivated the Concordia University community. It wasn’t just about wrestling. Francisco is a transcendent personality, one that endears him to all types of people.
It’s a common theme for fans to root against wrestlers from the NAIA’s dominant program, Grand View University (Iowa). But it wasn’t just that sentiment that rallied the crowd in support of Francisco during his semifinal bout with Grand View’s Jacob Laden. Chants of Ceron’s name rang out around the Expocentre Center in Topeka, Kan., just like it was a dual inside Walz Arena.
“I’m so proud of Ceron,” said first-year head coach Andrew Nicola. “He is just a warrior. He is just a relentless wrestler with a heart of gold. He’s the epitome of what Concordia wrestling is all about. He is humble in victory and humble in defeat. He is a great leader on and off the mats. He is irreplaceable in terms of what he has done and the way that he represents us.”
Francisco came up short in the heavyweight national championship bout. He got taken down early and then was nearly pinned, putting himself in a 6-0 hole that he couldn’t recover from. His opponent, fifth-ranked Demetrius Thomas, was red hot at the right time. He majored top-seeded Dean Broghammer, the 2016 heavyweight national champion, in the semifinals before doing the same to Francisco (10-2 major decision).
The loss aside, it was a big-time weekend performance by Francisco, just the second wrestler in school history to reach the grand stage of the national finals. Not many would have guessed Francisco would end up where he did when he was a struggling freshman.
“I’m just appreciate of everybody,” Francisco said Saturday night. “Concordia is a place of God’s people. The results show it. I’m just thankful for the whole experience.”
Not a single offensive point was tallied in Francisco’s semifinal bout with Laden, who the Bulldog heavyweight had beaten once and had been defeated by once throughout the course of this season. In the tiebreaker, Francisco built a 3-1 lead via an escape and a stall call before holding Laden at bay, 3-2.
That win put Francisco at exactly 100 for his career. His grandmother watched in the stands as Francisco gave Bulldog fans one last thrill.
“We knew what Ceron was capable of at this tournament,” Nicola said. “He wrestled above his seed and wrestled like a champion. I have no doubts he left it all on the mats.”
Though he dropped all three of his matches on Saturday, senior Ken Burkhardt Jr. recorded the highest national finish of his career. The native of Milford, Neb., moved up from eighth place as a sophomore to seventh place as a junior and then sixth this year. Burkhardt Jr. made a thrilling run to the semifinals with a trio of victories on Friday. Included in that advancement were wins over 10th-seeded Tanner Fischer of Southern Oregon and over second-seeded John Hensley of Great Falls (Mont.). Burkhardt Jr. completed his career with 122 wins, most in the history of the program.
As a team, Nicola’s first squad placed 15th with 36 points on the strength of its two All-Americans, Burkhardt Jr. and Francisco. This marks the fourth year in a row that the Bulldogs have turned in a top-25 placement at the national championships.
The 2017-18 squad will move on without a large and distinguished senior class that also includes 133-pounder Kodie Cole, a two-time All-American. The 11-member senior group helped drive Concordia to three-straight GPAC dual championships and three-consecutive NAIA North Qualifier titles.