From a conference standpoint, the Concordia University wrestling program was about as dominant as it ever has been. Led by a senior class long on quality performers, the 2019-20 Bulldogs showed impressive progression as compared to a year earlier. Of course it didn’t hurt when a certain former Nebraska Cornhusker offensive lineman burst onto the scene in January.
In his second season leading Concordia, Levi Calhoun earned GPAC Coach of the Year honors. The program has hummed along nicely having won GPAC championships in five of the past six seasons with three different head coaches during that timeframe.
“It went a lot better maybe than I even expected personally,” said Calhoun in summing up this winter. “I think our guys outperformed themselves, which is awesome to see. They always came into the room every day ready to work. No matter how the previous weekend went they came in on Monday ready to get better. I’m just super proud to be their coach. These kids worked so hard and overcame a lot of adversity this year. I told our guys after we won the conference tournament – they make me look good. There’s not a lot I can do once they step on the mat. They are the guys that go out there and get it done.”
It was a real credit to Calhoun and his coaching staff that the Bulldogs sent five first-timers to the national championships, among their eight qualifiers in 2020. Many of those individuals played a major role in Concordia going a perfect 8-0 in GPAC duals and then winning the conference tournament by a margin of more than 40 points. Three individuals captured GPAC titles: Mario Ybarra (125), Gabe Crawford (157) and Tanner Farmer (285).
Not surprisingly, Farmer’s story drew significant interest as the wins piled up. Many people were fascinated to see how his skills as an offensive lineman (and as a former two-time Illinois High School state champion) would translate to the world of NAIA wrestling. The answer was pretty obvious when Farmer (GPAC Wrestler of the Year) notched a lightning fast pin the national semifinals to move his overall record to 26-0 at the time. He ultimately fell in sudden victory in the heavyweight title match.
“Tanner left everything out there on the mat,” Calhoun said. “Nobody that watched that match would doubt that. He gave everything he had and just fell a little bit short. Obviously he’s made quite an impact on our program. He had a great tournament. We were excited to get him up on the big stage. We were disappointed not to come away with a championship, but he had nothing to hang his head about.”
The eight Bulldog qualifiers combined for 37.5 team points and a 15th-place NAIA national finish. For the second year in a row, 133-pounder Alberto Garcia made his way onto the All-America podium. The first day of the national tournament saw the 10th-seeded Garcia claim victories over the Nos. 7 and 2 ranked wrestlers in his weight class. Garcia overcame a series of challenges on his way to a plaque.
Farmer (26-1) led the team in victories while five teammates notched at least 18 wins this season: Ybarra (22-9), Blake (formerly Castillo) Sang (21-18), Cam Devers (18-8), Chris Kimball (18-10) and Deandre Chery (18-11). Garcia, Kimball (141) and Darrin Miller (184) each placed second in the GPAC while Kimball and Ybarra were both one national tournament victory short of collecting All-America honors.
“As a coach, we always feel that we can do better,” Calhoun said. “We had guys who were right on the brink of being All-Americans. There are definitely some things we can improve upon, but we moved up 11 places (nationally) from a year ago. That’s pretty awesome when you think about it.”
In six home duals, Concordia did not face a real significant threat from a team scoring perspective. The Bulldogs went 6-0 at Walz Arena with particularly massive blowouts over Midland, 54 to -1, Dakota Wesleyan, 48-4, and Bethany College (Kan.), 50-0. In that final home dual, senior Zack Moistner showed toughness in finishing out a victory despite a major injury. It wound up being the final match of his career.
From inside the conference, Concordia’s biggest challengers in the GPAC dual title race were Morningside and Briar Cliff. In avenging their only GPAC loss of the 2018-19 season, the Bulldogs defeated the Mustangs, 23-16, with the help of a key win by technical fall from Issiah Burks. Then on Jan. 25, Concordia locked up at least a share of the regular-season title on a day that saw it topple the Chargers, 22-13, at the GPAC Duals.
Among other season highlights, the Bulldogs competed in six main tournaments and went 2-2 at the Desert Duals Classic in Las Vegas, Nev., on Dec. 22. Concordia placed 16th at the Missouri Valley Invite, which served as a preview of the national tournament. Also in tournament action, Farmer seized first-place finishes at the Hastings Open, Missouri Valley Invite and Edmonds Open.
Calhoun’s varsity lineup will certainly have a different look to it in 2020-21. The program has now had at least one All-American seven-straight years and the budding Ybarra will be among the leading candidates to keep that streak intact. Like all other programs around the nation, the Bulldogs have had to deal with early goodbyes and no further spring semester team workouts.
“Normally we would do team lifting, some open-mat type of stuff and some team building stuff,” Calhoun said. “At this point our focus is on our athlete safety and making sure they finish out the school year academically. That’s really our focus moving forward. As a coaching staff, we’re looking for future Bulldogs that want to be part of our program.”