Nine Bulldogs set to take national stage on Friday

By Jake Knabel on Mar. 1, 2017 in Wrestling

NAIA Wrestling National Championships

SEWARD, Neb. – Nearly two weeks after wrapping up a NAIA North Qualifier team championship, national qualifying members of the Concordia University wrestling team are set to return to action. Nine Bulldogs will represent first-year head coach Andrew Nicola’s squad at the 2017 NAIA Wrestling National Championships, which will take place Friday and Saturday at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka, Kan.

Session I action begins Friday at 10 a.m. CST. The 60th annual event consists of four sessions, concluding Saturday with the championship finals at 7 p.m. The championship matches will be aired live on ESPN3.com.

Three of Concordia’s qualifiers have earned All-America awards at previous national championships. Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197) and Kodie Cole (133) have both reached the medal stand in back-to-back years and will be vying to become the first grapplers in school history with three All-America plaques. Meanwhile, two-time NAIA North Qualifier heavyweight titlist Ceron Francisco, a 2015 All-American is looking to return to the medal stand.

Including the 2017 event, the nine qualifiers combine for 21 national tournament trips. Burkhardt Jr. and Cole have made the journey to Topeka in every year of their careers. Francisco and Dmitri Smith (125) will be making their third appearances. The first timers are Kirk Kaliszewski (165), Josh Nelsen (184) and Reimers (197).

From a team perspective, Concordia enters the 2017 championships having strung together three top-25 national finishes in a row (eighth in 2016, 12th in 2015 and 22nd in 2014). The eighth-place finish last season, bolstered by Andrew Schulte’s program first individual national title, marked the highest placement in program history. The school’s high water mark for most All-Americans in a single year is four by the 2014-15 team. The 2015-16 group finished with three All-Americans.

Francisco ran the program’s streak of consecutive GPAC wrestler of the year awards to four by dominating conference opponents throughout his senior season. At 97-52 in his career, 23-2 this season, Francisco needs three more wins to become the second Bulldog wrestler ever to reach 100 victories. Burkhardt Jr. (119-56) stands as the winningest wrestler in the history of the program. For the third year in a row, Burkhardt Jr. has piled up more than 30 wins.

Six Bulldogs earned automatic berths to the national championships courtesy of top-three regional finishes: Francisco (285; 1st), Kaliszewski (165, 1st), Burkhardt Jr. (197, 2nd), Foster Bunce (141, 3rd), Nelsen (184, 3rd) and Reimers (197, 3rd). In addition, Smith (125), Cole (133) and DJ McIntyre (285) received wild card invitations, bringing Concordia’s national tournament roster to nine.

Seven Bulldogs earned some form of all-conference recognition and Nicola garnered coach of the year honors. Francisco was one of four Bulldogs chosen as first team all-conference selections, joining Burkhardt Jr., Kaliszewski and Nelsen. Reimers received second team accolades and DJ McIntyre (285) and Smith were awarded honorable mention. The run of Concordia GPAC wrestlers of the year has also included Emilio Rivera (2013-14), Enrique Barajas (2014-15) and Schulte (2015-16).

The top three finishers in each of the National Qualifiers’ 10 weight classes received automatic berths to the national championships. The remainder of the 240-wrestler field was filled with wildcard individuals. Each of the six qualifying groups received five wildcards, which were chosen by the group’s coaches at a post-qualifier meeting. The other 30 individuals were determined by a national selection committee. Each weight class features at least 20 wrestlers with an event-high 27 grapplers competing for the 125-pound, 149-pound and 165-pound titles.

2017 National Qualifiers
125 – Dmitri Smith (16-10); third national appearance
133 – Kodie Cole (19-12); fourth national appearance: two-time All-American
141 – Foster Bunce (14-9); second national appearance
165 – Kirk Kaliszewski (19-14): first national appearance
184 – Josh Nelsen (21-17); first national appearance
197 – Ken Burkhardt Jr. (33-8); fourth national appearance; two-time All-American
197 – Alexander Reimers (19-14); first national appearance
285 – Ceron Francisco (23-2); third national appearance; 2015 All-American
285 – DJ McIntyre (17-10); second national appearance