SEWARD, Neb. – For the second-straight year, head coach Dana Vote will take a group of 10 Bulldogs to the NAIA wrestling national championships. The 2016 event will be held Friday and Saturday at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka, Kan. The action is set to begin at 10 a.m. CT both days.
Following a program record 12th-place finish at the 2015 national championships, sixth-ranked Concordia has its sights set on moving into the top 10. Champions of the GPAC (dual and tournament titles), the Bulldogs will return to the scene four individuals who reached the medal stand in Topeka last year: Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197), Kodie Cole (133), Ceron Francisco (285) and Andrew Schulte (133).
With greater experience and five top-10 nationally ranked wrestlers comes greater expectations.
“We want to put ourselves in a position to be in the top five of the country,” Vote said. “We’re always looking to burst through there and get a trophy. I know those are high expectations but I think it’s something we’re capable of if we perform at a high level. We want to punch as many guys into the Saturday morning session as possible.”
Once reaching Saturday’s action, Concordia will aim for an improvement over 2015 when it struggled on the second day. The focus placed upon mental preparation could provide the remedy this time around.
“More than any year that I’ve been here we’ve talked about preparation and performing at high level through the mental process,” Vote said. “We’ve talked a lot about that over the last two months. We’ve prepared ourselves mentally to be ready for this tournament. They know they have to stay calm and enjoy the journey. I think the guys are ready to be in that environment.”
Schulte chases national title
Rarely seriously challenged in recent weeks, Andrew Schulte enters the national championships on a roll having won 21-straight matches. The native of Corona, Calif., was the third-straight Bulldog to garner GPAC wrestler of the year honors after a dominant run through the conference. At 35-6 overall, Schulte has broken a school record for most wins in a single season. He’s also been named a NAIA national wrestler of the week this season.
But those honors are merely things that distract from Schulte’s ultimate goal of winning a national title. One must go all the way back to Dec. 5 to find his most recent loss. He’s dominated by keeping an intense focus on the process.
“He’s consistent every single day in his eating, his sleeping and his practice room habits,” Vote said. “And he’s driven. He has a goal that he wants to accomplish. He’s putting distractions aside and he’s going after it. He’s done a phenomenal job.”
The second-ranked Schulte faces a challenge right out of the gate with a matchup against Grand View’s 10th-ranked Walker Marshall in the opening round of the 141-pound bracket.
Atwood breaks out as Bulldog
A transfer most recently from Bethany College, Matt Atwood has emerged as a pleasant surprise in his only season at Concordia. Said Atwood after winning the 184-pound NAIA North Qualifier title, “I’m blessed to be here. I couldn’t be happier with where God’s put me.” Atwood began his career at NCAA Division II Fort Hays State University (Kan.) via Smith Center High School. This season the native of Lebanon, Kan., has far surpassed the heights he reached at any of his previous stops.
He’s 24-5 overall, ranked No. 7 in his weight class and wrestling better than ever before.
“I think it’s awesome,” Vote said. “Matt’s really embraced what we’ve talked about here. He had a new opportunity and he took full advantage of it. He’s excited to compete and I’m excited for him.”
Lule motivated by 2015 disappointment
Senior Jr Lule’s recent matches have looked a lot like Schulte’s. Lule has won 12 in a row, including eight by technical fall. On his way to the 157-pound NAIA North Qualifier title, Lule recorded three victories by technical fall and one by pin. He’s 34-7 overall, feels as good physically as he ever has and comes into the national tournament red hot.
Now he’s determined to rid himself of the bad taste left over from the 2015 national championships when he fell short of reaching the medal stand. Ranked No. 5 in his weight class, Lule sees no limits in what he can accomplish this weekend.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about what happened at the national tournament last year,” Lule said. “I had big goals. I wanted to win it. This year I get to right my wrong. I want to compete to the best of my abilities.”
Added Vote, “I told them last year at the national tournament when things were hurting, don’t forget these moments. When you want to take a shortcut, remember how bad it hurts right now and drive past it. (Lule and Schulte) have embraced that.”
Ken Burkhardt Jr. and Kodie Cole are both making their third-straight appearances at the national championships. Though sometimes overshadowed by the accomplishments of Lule and Schulte, Burkhardt Jr. has quietly gone about his business. He owns a record of 27-11 this season and 81-46 for his career. The Milford native won four matches at the 2015 national championships on his way to an eighth-place finish at 197 pounds.
“It’s real impressive (to make three-straight national appearances),” Vote said. “Ken gets overshadowed a little bit, but he’s done a great job. He doesn’t get put in the spotlight, but he’s consistent. He’s consistent. He’s won matches at the national tournament. He just comes to work every day.”
Four Bulldogs make first national appearances
Four of the 10 national qualifiers will make their first trips to the national championships. The first-timers are Foster Bunce (149), Tommy Bailey (165), Travian Cooke (174) and Matt Atwood (184). Atwood and Bunce qualified automatically while Bailey and Cooke received at-large bids.
2016 Concordia national qualifiers
125 – No. 15 Dmitri Smith (20-17)
133 – No. 9 Kodie Cole (13-10)
141 – No. 2 Andrew Schulte (35-6)
149 – Foster Bunce (14-9)
157 – No. 5 Jr Lule (34-7)
165 – Tommy Bailey (28-20)
174 – Travian Cooke (20-14)
184 – No. 7 Matt Atwood (24-5)
197 – No. 14 Ken Burkhardt Jr. (27-11)
285 – No. 5 Ceron Francisco (28-13)
All-Americans under Vote
2015 – Ken Burkhardt Jr., Ceron Francisco, Kodie Cole, Andrew Schulte
2014 – Austin Mogg