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Season preview: 2017-18 wrestling

By Jake Knabel on Oct. 26, 2017 in Wrestling

2016-17 Dual Record: 11-4 overall, 7-0 GPAC (1st); won NAIA North Qualifier/GPAC Championships
2017 NAIA National Championships finish: 15th
Head Coach: Andrew Nicola (2nd year)
Returning National Qualifiers: Kirk Kaliszewski (165); Josh Nelsen (184); Alexander Reimers (197)
Key Losses: Foster Bunce (149); Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197); Kodie Cole (133); Ceron Francisco (285); DJ McIntyre (285); Dmitri Smith (125)
Key Newcomers: Alberto Garcia (133); Chris Kimball (149); Keanu Tom (157)
2016-17 GPAC All-Conference: Andrew Nicola (coach of the year); Ceron Francisco (wrestler of the year; first team); Ken Burkhardt Jr. (first team); Kirk Kaliszewski (first team); Josh Nelsen (first team); Alexander Reimers (second team); DJ McIntyre (honorable mention); Dmitri Smith (honorable mention)
2017 NAIA All-Americans: Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197, 6th); Ceron Francisco (285, 2nd)

Outlook
For the past four seasons, program cornerstones Ken Burkhardt Jr. and Ceron Francisco thrilled crowds inside Walz Arena while leading the Concordia wrestling program down a path to GPAC dominance and national prominence. Burkhardt Jr., Francisco and the rest of last season’s culture changing senior class have exhausted their eligibility. Now really is a transformative time for the Bulldogs as second-year head coach Andrew Nicola continues to put his stamp on the program.

Six of nine 2017 national qualifiers have departed, but Nicola welcomes 18 new wrestlers to the program. Several of the newcomers are junior college transfers with the potential to ably fill the gaps left behind by that memorable senior class.

“We believe on focusing our lives on three things within Bulldog wrestling,” Nicola said. “That’s academics, athletics and our social life. We will continue to rise in the national ranks. We’re on our way. We’re recruiting the right kind of guys that are buying into the academic, athletic and social excellence that we demand of them.”

Named the GPAC coach of the year after guiding the program to its third-straight GPAC dual and tournament championships, Nicola enjoyed a full offseason to prep his 2017-18 squad. A year ago, Nicola arrived after the school year had already begun. He replaced Dana Vote (current Midland head coach), the architect behind Concordia’s resurgence. Nicola stepped in and made the transition a smooth one.

Nicola and company united in pursuit of common goals. The Bulldogs kept alive a GPAC dual win streak that now stands at 21, Francisco advanced to the heavyweight national championship match and Burkhardt Jr. reached the All-America podium for the third time in a career that saw him claim the title of winningest wrestler in the history of the program. Returners like Kirk Kaliszewski learned what Bulldog wrestling is all about from those seniors.

“I lived with Kodie Cole and Dmitri Smith so they showed me a lot about hard work,” Kaliszewski said. “They were coming in all the time and just getting workouts in. They showed me a lot about the culture and I really appreciate that. Ken was just a machine on the mat. You see him go out there and dominate. He had a killer season. Then Ceron was in a national championship so it’s totally possible to be at Concordia and be in a national championship. They gave us a lot of inspiration for us wanting to continue the traditions.”

Now what? Start with Kaliszewski, a 2017 GPAC champion and national qualifier at 165 pounds. He enters this season ranked first in the GPAC and seventh nationally in his weight class. Kaliszewski can build upon his national championships win over Indiana Tech’s John Weldon, who was ranked ninth at the time. It took a little while for the Palomar College transfer to get going. He won his final seven matches leading up to the national championships.

It’s time for Kaliszewski to shine and to lead in his senior season. With a year under his belt as a Bulldog, the guy teammates call “Kirk Smash” appears primed for a run at an All-America award.

“We call him Kirk Smash for a reason,” Nicola said. “He just knows one speed and it’s always going hard. Early January at National Duals he was getting beat up. Then come nationals, he was beating those same guys – top-ranked guys in the country. When he won conference and regions, it was a little bit of a surprise for everyone in the conference, except us. In the month of February he decided that he was tired of losing. He doesn’t yell a whole lot. He doesn’t holler at people. He just leads by example.”

Joining Kaliszewski as returning national qualifiers are wrestling room sparring partners in juniors Josh Nelsen (184) and Alexander Reimers (197). Nelsen collected first team all-conference honors while Reimers landed on the GPAC’s second team in 2017. Both Bulldogs checked in at No. 2 in the preseason GPAC rankings in their respective weight classes. Nicola has a lot of faith that this will be the year that Reimers, a Seward native, takes off. Says Nicola, “He will be making a run at the top of the podium and I believe that with my whole heart.”

Of course, the program’s next big star could end up being senior Giovanni Castillo a former Grand Canyon University wrestler. Castillo was seen only briefly last season in a Bulldog singlet. One of his victories as a junior came by major decision over Indiana Tech’s Sawyer Miller, who wound up as a 125-pound All-American. The native of Ontario, Calif., is looking to bump up a weight class and wreak havoc at 133.

“He is an incredible athlete,” Nicola said. “That’s really what it boils down to. Our goal for Gio is to make sure that he’s wrestling to the best of his ability and also that he’s walking across the podium to get a degree. We’re going to help him focus on his grades so we don’t have any setbacks. He’ll be a very solid 133-pounder. We’ll see how his competition goes and how his body is feeling and how he mentally feels at 133. He’s going to have success and be a national contender at either weight class.”

Four not previously mentioned Bulldogs appeared in the preseason GPAC rankings: freshman Seth Harrell (fifth at 125) and juniors Chris Kimball (sixth at 149), Keanu Tom (fifth at 157) and Walker Fisher (fifth at 174). Kimball and Tom are also transfers that hail from California. Another Palomar College import, like Kaliszewski and graduate assistant Junior Lule, junior Alberto Garcia figures to make a big impact at 141 pounds when the second semester opens up. Among the other host of returners, sophomore Cameron Devers (141) and senior Jon Lado (165) could also make runs for berths to the national championships. Senior Victor Haro (157) should be a steady first semester performer.

All in all, Concordia believes it has a team capable of succeeding in dual and tournament competition. Understandably, there are question marks about replacing the most accomplished senior class in program history, particularly at heavyweight. That doesn’t mean the Bulldogs can’t rise up to claim more GPAC championships and make a splash at the national level. Kaliszewski has seen the right attitude and work habits fall into place this offseason.

“Everyone measures success differently,” Kaliszewski said. “For me it would just be achieving my goals. I want our team to win the GPAC. That’s definitely a given. We want to win the GPAC tournament and we want to be top 10 at the national tournament. Those goals are up there, but every tournament we’re going to have goals. I just want to see us win. If we have problems, we’re fixing them and the next tournament we’re dominating. They’re going to know we’ve been working hard and they’re not going to want to wrestle us. That’s my expectation at tournaments.”

The season is set to open Sunday, Nov. 5 with Concordia competing at the Dan Harris Open hosted by Baker University (Kan.). Concordia will make its home debut on Nov. 30 when Dakota Wesleyan visits Walz Arena for a GPAC dual.