At a glance:
2012-13 Dual Record: 2-10 overall, 1-5 GPAC (T-6th)
Head Coach: Dana Vote (2-10 overall, 2nd year)
Key Returners: Kale Hintz (Jr.), Austin Starkey (So.), Alex Stepanek (Sr.)
Total Letter Winners Returning/Lost: 7/4
Key Losses: Frank Ayala, Brandon Starkey
By Jake Knabel, Sports Information Director
Concordia wrestling will have a very different look in 2013-14 with 19 new faces holding down spots on head coach Dana Vote’s roster. After enduring a rebuilding campaign in year one under Vote, the Bulldogs have restocked the cupboards, most notably with seasoned grapplers who already hold collegiate All-America honors.
Vote and his staff worked hard to put together a recruiting class that could bring immediate respectability to the program. The retooled roster has brought a new level of energy to the Concordia wrestling room, where expectations are growing.
“We have it in our goals to have more than three All-Americans,” Vote said. “I think without three All-Americans it’s hard for us to see it as a successful season. We also have high expectations for duals. I feel like we have a real strong dual team. If we can get some big wins on the board dual-wise, I think that shows that we’re moving forward.”
Vote raised eyebrows in the summer of 2012 when he secured transfer Austin Mogg by way of Buena Vista University (Iowa). Mogg piled up 92 wins as a Beaver and claimed All-America honors at the 2010 NCAA Division III National Championships. Ranked No. 6 in the NAIA at 125 pounds, the native of El Reno, Okla., gives the Bulldogs a legitimate title contender at the top of their lineup. Mogg has one season of eligibility left after sitting out a year due to transfer rules.
“I’m really excited to have Austin in the lineup,” Vote said. “Being a 125-pounder, he’ll start us off at every meet and every tournament. It’s huge. I expect a lot out of Austin. I know he’s got high expectations for himself and I think he can do some real good things for us this year.”
Two additional transfers in Emilio Rivera (133) and Enirque Barjas (149) figure to hold down spots in the lineup after coming to Concordia from California junior colleges. Both bring impressive credentials having already earned collegiate All-America honors.
“Emilio and Enrique are great kids with great work ethics,” Vote said. “They are proven winners. They won at the junior college level. Their transition has been great coming in. They haven’t missed a stride. They’ve done great things in the room. I can always count on those two to give me full effort every day.”
Barajas, a native of Hayward, Calif., prefers an aggressive style of wrestling that keeps opponents on the defensive.
“When I’m in my zone, I shoot all the time,” Barajas said. “I’m taking you down. I’m staying on your head. I’m not letting off any pressure. I’m just constantly attacking.”
Among the team’s eight holdovers from the 2012-13 season, senior 141-pounder Alex Stepanek (18-22) and sophomore 157-pounder Austin Starkey (14-17) are the leading returners in terms of wins. Both must stave off competition from members of the talented recruiting class for time on the mat at tournaments and in duals.
Starkey, who hails from St. Paul, Neb., has improved his strength throughout the offseason and appears determined to make a bigger splash in his second season in the Bulldog singlet.
“We have high goals for him this year,” Vote said. “He did a lot of training in the offseason on getting stronger. You can see it. He’s changed his body. He looks way stronger than he did last year.”
There also a slew of freshmen who come in ready to more than make up for the losses of heavyweight Frank Ayala (19-21) and 157-pounder Brandon Starkey (18-16).
One particularly intriguing newcomer is the well put together Ceron Francisco, whose wrestling career got a late start. The 6-foot-3 hulking heavyweight from Fayetteville, N.C., has shown rapid improvement in his development even since arriving on campus in the fall. The freshman went 23-4 and qualified for the state championships as a high school senior.
“Ceron has come in and done great things in the weight room and the wrestling room,” Vote said. “He’s really inexperienced on the mat, but he’s improving every day. The change he’s had from day one to now is just incredible.”
Other impressive freshmen include 141-pounder Foster Bunce (Munith, Mich.), 174-pounder Austin Fehlhafer (Seward, Neb.) and 197-pounder Ken Burkhardt Jr. (Milford, Neb.). Bunce earned state medalist honors three times and went 210-27 in his career at Dansville High School. Fehlhafer also enjoyed a big high school career in Concordia’s backyard with two state runner-up finishes and 137 career prep wins. Meanwhile, Burkhardt Jr. captured a state-runner up finish at nearby Milford High School.
In addition, freshman Tommy Bailey is an accomplished grappler out of Wood River High School in Hailey, Idaho. He qualified for the state championships all four years.
Senior 174-pounder Nick Sheppard and junior 184-pounder Kale Hintz join Starkey and Stepanek as Bulldogs with significant experience at the NAIA level. Hintz wrestled mostly at 174 last year and came up with a team-high tying six pins. Hintz and sophomore Noel Richardson will both compete at 184 while Sheppard vies for action at 174 along with Fehlhafer.
With the roster makeover complete, Barajas and company see plenty of good things happening in the Bulldog wrestling room.
“We’ve been going hard every day,” Barajas said. “We push past our limits all the time. Coach is right there making sure we do more than we can, getting our mental ability to a higher extent.”
Vote says the work ethic of his team rivals that of any he’s seen.
“The work ethic is great,” Vote said. “We’ve got guys in here on their own. About any time of the day that you walk in here, there are usually guys on the mat getting a drill in on their own. They’re always getting weight workouts in, getting extra runs in. It’s just been phenomenal. During preseason, I’ve never seen a team run as hard as this team’s run.”
The infusion of talent means new expectations after last year’s team fell short of qualifying any individuals for the national championships. That won’t cut it this time around.
“We’re young and inexperienced with some transfers so it’s hard to really read with the GPAC, but as a team we have some high goals of finishing real high in the GPAC,” Vote said. “I know we’re going to be competitive in the conference. The GPAC’s a great conference for wrestling. If you can get towards the top you can look to do some damage on the national level and that’s what our goal is as a team.”
Concordia begins its 2013-14 season on Saturday, Nov. 9 with the Bethany College Swede Open in Lindsborg, Kan. The nonconference portion of the schedule also includes the Iowa State Cyclone Open (Nov. 16) and the Desert Duals (Dec. 21) in Las Vegas, Nev.