This past offseason, Levi Calhoun became the fourth head coach of the Bulldogs since the reboot of the Concordia University wrestling program in 2009. Some members of the current senior class, such as Walker Fisher, were suddenly on their third head coach at Concordia. A three-year assistant for the Bulldogs, Calhoun was tasked with showing that the program remained on solid ground despite a bit of a step back the previous season.
The results may have surprised some onlookers, perhaps even some within the program. Some of the question marks that surrounded the team this past winter were answered in the affirmative.
“Without looking at results, as far as the team camaraderie and the culture, I was very happy with how the transition went,” Calhoun said. “The guys bought into everything that our staff presented to them. I was pretty happy with the way that they responded. As far as results, I don’t know that I knew what to expect at the beginning of the season. Winning a conference title in the regular season was definitely the highlight of the year. I don’t think it was anything anyone expected us to do.”
Courtesy of a 28-10 win at Northwestern on Jan. 31, Concordia clinched at least a share of the GPAC dual title, which means the program can now boast of conference championships in four of the past five seasons. The belief that such a feat was attainable got a big boost in Fremont on Nov. 15. These team successes were made possible by the efforts of many individuals. Junior Deandre Chery and redshirt freshman Michael Stann were consistent high achievers throughout the season and junior Alberto Garcia saved his best wrestling for the brightest stage.
The key numbers in terms of results were GPAC finishes of first in the regular season and fourth at the conference tournament and then a 26th place claim at the NAIA National Championships. Chery was a GPAC champion at 174 pounds and one of five national qualifiers. Garcia made waves at the national tournament by winning three times against opponents seeded in the top 10 on his way to collecting the program’s 15th all-time All-America award.
It won’t go down as the program’s best season ever, but it was an important one that displayed its resilience. All it needed was a little shot of confidence like it got when it knocked off defending GPAC tournament champion Midland, 21-17, in mid-November. The GPAC title would not have happened without the come-from-behind victory.
“I think it sparked us a little bit,” Calhoun said. “It proved to the guys that we belong at the top of the GPAC again. More than anything it gave us confidence and the drive to continue to improve. It was especially fun to do that at their place against our former head coach. It was definitely a confidence booster.”
National qualifiers other than Chery (174) and Garcia (133) included Fisher (174), junior Zack Moistner and Stann (285). All but Chery were first-time national qualifiers. Each of their stories this past season were special in their own right. Calhoun took particular joy in seeing Fisher take advantage of his last opportunity and Moistner reach the national stage in a classic underdog role.
Freshmen like Stann and 125-pounder Mario Ybarra of Scottsbluff, Neb., will certainly play a big role in the future of the program. At opposite ends of the weight spectrum, both burst onto the scene in their first collegiate seasons. Ybarra collected 25 wins while Stann rampaged his way to 36 wins and 16 pins. The opposition will have to deal with them for three more years.
“As a first year starter it’s tough to get used to things, but he jumped right in and was successful right away,” Calhoun said of Stann. “Having over 30 wins in any season in college wrestling is impressive, but to do it as a freshman – I’m just very excited. He still has a lot of room to improve and he’s hungry to improve. He’s willing to be coached and he wants to work hard. There will be high expectations for him.”
Chery clipped Stann for the team lead in pins with 17 and fell just behind him with 35 victories. The disappointment for Chery was not reaching the podium. Despite stellar overall seasons, Chery and Stann will be highly motivated to finish what they started this winter. The same thing goes for essentially all 2019-20 returners, with the exception of Garcia.
The road has sometimes been bumpy during the college career of Garcia, who is another in a wave of transfers from Palomar College in California. Injuries played a role in him wrestling only 23 matches for the season. A loss to D’earion Stokes in the GPAC championships prevented Garcia from having a shot at winning a conference title. Garcia eventually avenged that loss at the national championships where things came together for him.
“His mentality was the biggest factor in him being successful,” Calhoun said. “He flips a switch when he steps on the mat. No matter what the score is he continues to push the pace and try to score points, which is what we preach. He wrestled lights out at the national tournament.”
The question becomes: now what? Four of the five national qualifiers will be back for 2019-20. Calhoun would like to think that the 2018-19 campaign was a baby step forward on the road to increased national prominence. The program’s only top 10 NAIA finish (2016) came with the help of one of the most decorated recruiting classes in school history.
Calhoun and his staff, which includes former GPAC Wrestler of the Year Junior Lule, are going to work in efforts to surround the likes of Chery, Garcia, Stann and Ybarra with other high-end competitors.
“First we have to continue to develop the guys we have,” Calhoun said. “That’s going to be important. We have a lot of young kids coming up who will be vital to our success, and obviously recruiting is going to be huge. We want to fill our roster with guys who are going to represented Concordia Bulldogs Wrestling as we envision. Moving forward, we want to get back to being in the top 16, which gives you an automatic bid to National Duals, and then continue to climb up. GPAC titles are the expectation here and we want to go beyond that and do even more.”