SEWARD, Neb. – The 2016 NAIA North National Qualifier served as another avenue for the seventh-ranked Concordia University wrestling team to flex its muscles. Nine days after locking up their second-straight GPAC dual title, the Bulldogs polished off a second-consecutive NAIA North championship with their 169 team points easily outdistancing runner-up Morningside’s 115.5 points on Saturday.
Matt Atwood (184), Ceron Francisco (285), Jr Lule (157) and Andrew Schulte (141) each claimed individual North titles and a total of eight Bulldogs earned automatic national tournament bids thanks to top-three finishes in their respective weight classes. It all added up to a stellar showcase as Concordia University played host to a well-orchestrated event.
“Overall we wrestled well. We started off hot,” said head coach Dana Vote, named the North’s 2015-16 coach of the year. “There were a couple other guys on the verge of getting through that I thought we had a really good chance at. We hit a couple stretches where we had some tough matches, but I think overall we wrestled pretty well.”
The Bulldogs won their first 13 matches of the day and finished 32-12 overall. Not surprisingly, Lule and Schulte continued to tear apart their GPAC foes. The incredible Lule breezed to a NAIA North title by winning all four of his bouts by technical fall. Even the region’s second-ranked grappler, Martin Phillips, provided little resistance for Lule (ranked seventh nationally at 157), who has triumphed in 12-consecutive matches.
It was the final time that Lule will appear at Walz. The former California junior college transfer has made a huge impact in his two seasons as a Bulldog.
“It feels so good. Wrestling in this arena and in front of these fans has been one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life,” Lule said. “I’m just glad that I had the opportunity to come here and wrestle the way that I do.”
At 184, Atwood has blazed to a 25-5 record in his only season at Concordia. Atwood did not face a serious challenge until the finals that pitted him against Northwestern’s 10th-ranked Tyree Cox. Atwood avenged a Jan. 23 loss to Cox by eking out an 8-6 decision in Saturday’s championship bout. Said Atwood, “I’m blessed to be here. I couldn’t be happier with where God’s put me.”
Not known for a penchant for pinning, Schulte won his first two matches by fall in making his way to the finals where Briar Cliff’s Sonny Gulesian hung in with the NAIA’s top-ranked 141-pounder for the first period. Schulte ultimately won by major decision, 11-3, for his 21st-consectuive win.
Concordia ended the tournament in style with Francisco’s crowd-pleasing performance in the heavyweight battle. The sixth-ranked Francisco carried out several thunderous takedowns on his way to a 14-3 major decision over Briar Cliff’s Dalton Presley. An All-American in 2015 as a wild card selection, Francisco made sure he sewed up his national tournament placement.
He and Atwood are first time regional champs.
“Those guys have done a great job,” Vote said. “Matt Atwood came in as a transfer. He’s always been a tough wrestler, but this year has been his breakthrough year. He avenged a loss from a kid earlier in the year and wrestled a great match.
“Ceron dominated the heavyweight division. He wrestled great.”
Kodie Cole (133) and Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197) also made their way to the finals by seizing their first two matches of the day. Both will have the opportunity to reach the stand again after having earned All-America honors in 2015. Meanwhile, Dmitri Smith (125) and Foster Bunce (149) punched their tickets to Topeka, Kan., with third-place claims. Smith will make his second-straight national tournament appearance while Bunce will make the first of his career.
Junior Austin Starkey came up just shy of an automatic berth. He fell in the 157-pound third-place match to Morningside’s Dakota Drenth. Starkey was one of three Bulldogs that placed either fourth or fifth.
The 2016 NAIA Wrestling National Championships will be contested March 4-5 at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka, Kan. At last season’s grand event, the Bulldogs recorded their highest finish in program history, placing 12th nationally. Four Bulldogs earned All-America plaques: Burkhardt Jr., Francisco, Cole and Schulte.
Concordia automatic national qualifiers
125 – Dmitri Smith (3rd place)
133 – Kodie Cole (2nd place)
141 – Andrew Schulte (1st place)
149 – Foster Bunce (3rd place)
157 – Jr Lule (1st place)
184 – Matt Atwood (1st place)
197 – Ken Burkhardt Jr. (2nd place)
285 – Ceron Francisco (1st place)
Final Team Scoring
1. Concordia 169.0
2. Morningside 115.5
3. Northwestern 110.0
4. Doane 102.5
5. Briar Cliff 95.5
6. Midland 90.0
7. Dakota Wesleyan 63.5
8. Hastings 43.0