TOPEKA, Kan. – The 2015 NAIA Wrestling National Championships came to a head in the afternoon on Saturday with four Bulldogs locking up spots on the medal stand as All-Americans. Over the two-day tournament, head coach Dana Vote’s collection of 10 national qualifiers combined for 43 team points, which elevated the Concordia University wrestling team to 12th place – its highest-ever national finish.
While Saturday did not go as Vote would have scripted it, he ended up with All-Americans in Andrew Schulte (141, 5th), Ceron Francisco (285, 6th), Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197, 8th) and Kodie Cole (133, 8th). A solid overall tournament followed up GPAC and NAIA North Group titles as part of a breakthrough campaign for the Bulldogs.
“When you look at the big picture we had a good tournament,” said Vote, the GPAC and NAIA North coach of the year. “Coming into the year, four All-Americans would have been a big number for us. I think coming into the weekend we thought we could get at least five, but we wrestled tough. I’m satisfied with that.”
Schulte concluded his season with a pin of Menlo College’s ninth-ranked Steele Escobedo in 2:23 in the 141-pound fifth-place bout. That performance came on the heels of a pair of one-point losses. Paired with defending national champion and top-ranked Brandon Wright, Schulte fell by a 3-2 score in the semifinals. He then dropped a 5-4 bout to Lindsey Wilson’s fifth-rated Daniel Leonard.
A transfer from Santa Ana College, No. 3 Schulte finished his first campaign as a Bulldog with an overall record of 20-4. The NAIA North Group champion nearly punched a ticket to Saturday night’s final.
“I definitely came here believing I could beat that guy,” Schulte said of his matchup with Wright. “I fell a little bit short. The match after that I would say I definitely didn’t wrestle like myself. I was definitely disappointed in that. Then I dropped down to the fifth-place match and decided to make it happen. I pinned him as fast as I could.”
A surprise semifinalist in the heavyweight bracket, unranked sophomore Ceron Francisco (31-17) led 1-0 going into the third period against Missouri Valley’s fourth-ranked Gabi Musallam (third-place finisher in 2014). With the bout tied 1-1 in the final minute, Musallam took Francisco down for the match-deciding two-pointer with a spot in the title match on the line. Francisco, who hails from Fayetteville, N.C., ultimately dropped down to the fifth-place bout and took sixth.
“Andrew and Ceron both had a great tournament,” Vote said. “They were both one point away from being in the national finals. Ceron wrestled tough. I always believed he had the ability to do that. Now it’s just getting the confidence to wrestle to his ability. I think it’s coming.
“And Andrew’s been dominant all year. He took the guy who was probably the second best in the whole tournament – all weights – to the wire.”
Making his second-straight appearance on the national stage, Concordia sophomore 133-pounder Kodie Cole (17-8) settled for eighth place after getting pinned in both of his Saturday matches. Also a North champion, Cole carried an 11-match win streak into the national championships on the strength of two tournament titles.
Likewise, ninth-ranked 197-pound sophomore Ken Burkhardt Jr. (33-18) placed eighth for a spot on the medal stand. The Milford native fell, 6-5, to York’s Logan Paul Eickhoff in his first match on Saturday. He then ended his tournament with a pair of losses via fall.
Concordia’s four All-Americans were the most at a single national tournament in the six-year history since the program’s rebirth in 2009. The 2012 national championships produced three Bulldog All-Americans. Last season 125-pounder Austin Mogg became the fourth All-American in program history.
Of the team’s 10 national qualifiers, only Enrique Barajas and Emilio Rivera (the past two GPAC wrestlers of the year) are seniors. In other words, Vote has high hopes for what the 2015-16 season will bring.