Though the Concordia University wrestling program lost its stranglehold on the top spot in the GPAC, there were redeeming moments during a campaign that saw Andrew Nicola wrap up his second season as head coach. Jerry Stepps III went from a career backup to a feel good story while Giovanni Castillo overcame personal and injury struggles to become the ninth All-American in program history.
The efforts of Bulldog wrestling coaches and competitors to chase down a team national championships trophy (top-four finish) has been a process. The 2015-16 squad turned in the program’s highest ever national finish (eighth). This year’s edition had to regroup without a 2017 class of seniors that included national runner up Ceron Francisco and three-time All-American Ken Burkhardt Jr.
“Seems like it’s getting tougher and tougher (to earn a team trophy),” Nicola said. “Indiana Tech had six All-Americans and they didn’t even bring home a team trophy. You have a team like Cumberlands who had two champs, three finalists and six All-Americans and they take second. And Coach (Corey) Ruff (at Lindsey Wilson) always has his team in the mix. What it boils down to is those teams are having 11 or 12 national qualifiers and putting themselves in position to score points. It’s important that our conference does well at the opens and the Missouri Valley Invite so we get more GPAC wrestlers at the national tournament.”
Under the previous national tournament selection process, Concordia would have traveled more than just the three qualifiers it ended up with this March. The three that did make their way to Des Moines, Iowa – Castillo (133), Deandre Chery (174) and Chris Kimball (141) – each made a splash on the national stage. Seeded 12th, Chery upset Missouri Valley’s fifth-seeded Cody Carson and Kimball upended No. 8 Gaige Torres of Indiana Tech.
But it was Castillo who stole the show on the national stage from a Bulldog perspective. He won his first three matches, advancing to the semifinals of the 133-pound bracket. The Ontario, Calif., native then came within an eyelash of pinning Jake Sinkovics, the eventual national champion. Despite the defeat, Castillo claimed fifth place and helped was away the frustrations of being ineligible as a junior and sitting out with a concussion during a long stretch this season.
“He’s been a pain at times,” Nicola said. “But the word I’d used to describe him is resilient. We had some setbacks last year with his academics. Not only did he get those on point, this first semester was probably his best in four years of college. Then to have a concussion that takes him out for a long time and some weight issues, it didn’t all work out. For him to be an inch away from the national finals shows he’s resilient.”
Like Castillo, Chery and Kimball both made their first career appearances at the NAIA national championships. Chery won the 174-pound GPAC title and led Concordia with 13 pins on the season. He showed what a dangerous wrestler he can be when he pinned Baker’s (Kan.) Lucas Lovvorn at the Doane Open. Lovvorn wound up winning a national title. Meanwhile, Kimball was a third-place conference finisher at 141.
Both got valuable experience on the national stage that should serve them well moving into next winter.
“Deandre’s just one of those guys where if you don’t do your homework on you’re probably going to struggle,” Nicola said. “He’ll throw the kitchen sink at you, whether it’s ripping your shoulder off with a half or whatever. The guy who ended winning the national title – he spladled and pinned earlier in the year. Deandre is very, very strong. He just needs to learn more wrestling. As far as Chris Kimball, we know he’s more than capable. He beat Gaige Torres who had beaten us earlier in the year. Chris made the necessary adjustments.”
Stepps III came up short of reaching the national tournament, but his season is worth celebrating. After wrestling 41 matches combined over his first three collegiate seasons, the St. Louis, Mo., native surprised many by going a perfect 8-0 in GPAC duals. That run earned him a spot on the GPAC’s first team all-conference list. Overall, Stepps III won 19 matches, far surpassing his three-year career totaling entering the 2017-18 season.
Five Bulldogs reached the 20-win mark, including Cam Devers (25-9), Chery (25-15), Walker Fisher (24-11), Josh Nelsen (24-15) and Darrin Miller (23-17). Nelsen had been a 2017 national qualifier. Fisher and Nelsen were both nationally ranked at various times throughout the season.
Nicola has identified a need for more balance and depth throughout the dual lineup. Too often Nicola had to move wrestlers up or down to weights that were not best suited to their bodies and skill sets. It’s time for Nicola, top assistant Levi Calhoun and the rest of the staff to hit the recruiting trail and fortify a roster and a program still on solid ground. Concordia’s recent history suggests it has the foundation to remain a force on the conference and national levels.
“We’re trying to continue to build toughness in the room,” Nicola said. “I feel good about the guys we have. I’m excited for some of the recruits we are bringing in. With recruiting, you always lose more battles than you win. You hope no one sneaks in and finds out about some of the diamonds in the rough, like Ceron who nobody knew anything about. You have to look for those kinds of guys. We keep looking for the guys who will be good fits academically, athletically and socially. I think we’re doing a pretty good job with that.”
Castillo and Stepps III were joined by other significant contributors in the senior class such as Michael Duffy (285), Kirk Kaliszewski (165), Jonathan Lado (165) and Woods (157). Several of them were around for at least one of the program’s GPAC title runs. The Bulldogs will not have any returning All-Americans in 2019, so now it’s about developing and unearthing the next Burkhardts, Franciscos and Castillos.