Season preview: 2014-15 wrestling

By on Nov. 5, 2014 in Wrestling

Season preview: 2014-15 wrestling

By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications

At a glance:
2013-14 Dual Record: 9-8 overall, 5-2 GPAC (T-2nd)
2014 NAIA National Championships finish: 22nd
2014 NAIA North Group finish: 2nd
Head Coach: Dana Vote (11-18 overall, 3rd year)
Key Returners: Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197), Enrique Barajas (149), Kodie Cole (133), Austin Fehlhafer (174), Emilio Rivera (133)
Key Losses: Austin Mogg
Key Newcomers: Eric Franklin, Jr Lule, Andrew Schulte
2013-14 GPAC All-Conference: Emilio Rivera (wrestler of the year; first team), Austin Fehlhafer (first team), Enrique Barajas (honorable mention), Ken Burkhardt Jr. (honorable mention), Austin Mogg (honorable mention)
2013-14 NAIA All-American: Austin Mogg (125 – fifth place)
2013-14 NAIA National Qualifiers: Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197), Enrique Barajas (149), Kodie Cole (133), Austin Fehlhafer (174), Austin Mogg (125), Emilio Rivera (133)

A palpable momentum permeates the Concordia University wrestling room, where third-year head coach Dana Vote has quickly built a program recognized as one of the best in the GPAC and in the NAIA’s North Group. Last season the Bulldogs jumped to second in both the GPAC and the North and sent six qualifiers to the national championships in what marked an impressive turnaround from the rebuilding campaign in Vote’s first season.

While it was an immensely positive step, the Bulldogs came away from the national championships disappointed. Several close losses on the big stage have kept them motivated throughout an offseason that has nearly drawn to a close.

“It was good for us,” Vote said of last year’s improvement. “I feel like it was a big step in the right direction as far as the program goes. We grew throughout the year. I know there was a lot of disappointment for us as a team at the national tournament. We lost a lot of close matches. We had six matches that were decided by one point or in overtime. That’s a lot of points we left on the table and I think that’s what has us hungry for this upcoming year.”

It did not take long for the Bulldogs to earn respect on the regional level. This preseason Concordia earned the No. 1 ranking in the North and a No. 15 national rating in the NAIA coaches’ poll. With five returning national qualifiers grouped with a collection of 19 newcomers, including three junior college All-Americans, Vote’s 2014-15 team will deal with something new: expectations.

That doesn’t mean the approach inside the room is any different.

“I think we approach it every day the same as we did before,” Vote said. “We come in ready to work and make gains. We want to get a little bit better every day and live that championship lifestyle. I tell these guys this isn’t just a sport, it’s a lifestyle. You have to believe in the process more than the results.”

Among the returners, senior Emilio Rivera (23-8) and freshman Austin Fehlhafer (28-11) enjoyed the most success last season. Rivera went 11-0 against conference wrestlers on the way to earning GPAC wrestler of the year honors. He then won the North group’s 133-pound title and qualified for the national championships. Meanwhile, Fehlhafer was a pinning machine in his first collegiate season following a standout career at Seward High School.

Rivera, ranked No. 7 in the NAIA at 133, has worked hard in the offseason and is thinking big after the disappointment of losing twice by a single point at the 2014 national championships.

“Nationals last year didn’t go how I wanted it to,” Rivera said. “I didn’t even place in the tournament and I was (ranked) pretty high up there. I’m trying to work harder this year and win it. I know it’s not going to be easy. I have it set in my mind what I have to do to achieve that.”

A lot will be expected of Fehlhafer, ranked eighth nationally at 174 pounds. A second place finisher at the regional tournament, Fehlhafer burst onto the scene with 20 pins (top-five in the NAIA) in his rookie season that included the Outstanding Wrestling award at the University of Nebraska-Kearney Open.

“I knew Austin was good coming in, I just didn’t know how good he would be, how fast,” Vote said. “He stepped in there right away and took off. He’s a competitor. He and Emilio are a lot alike in the fact that they get out there and they know how to compete. You could see him grow throughout the year. We have big expectations for him this year. I think he’s right in the hunt at 174 pounds. He can wrestle with anyone in the country.”

The Bulldogs possess four more preseason nationally-ranked wrestlers, in addition to Fehlhafer and Rivera. That list includes holdovers in senior Enrique Barajas (No. 7 at 149), sophomores Foster Bunce (No. 16 at 141) and Ken Burkhardt Jr. (No. 9 at 197) and junior Eric Franklin (No. 8 at 133), who joins the program via Ellsworth Community College (Iowa).

On a regional level, sophomore Dmitri Smith checks in at No. 6 at 125 pounds and newcomer DJ McIntyre, also a transfer from Ellsworth, garnered a No. 5 spot in the North at heavyweight.

Two other former junior college All-Americans – Andrew Schulte (141) and Jr. Lule (149) – will also impact the Bulldogs when they become eligible in the second semester. Vote hopes the transfers will make a seamless transition just as Rivera did last season.

“Those guys are tough,” Vote said. “They came in with a little experience and you can see it. They’re scrapping in the practice room and stepping up as leaders. Jr. Lule has been a great leader in the room as far as leading by example and taking charge and running drills and warm ups. Andrew Schulte looks real solid at 141. He’s a competitor. He goes hard every day. Whoever picks him as a partner knows they’re going to have a tough day at practice. And Franklin is as athletic as anyone in the country.”

Rivera says that the increased depth within the program has been a benefit to the entire team. Even as the reigning GPAC wrestler of the year, the Escondido, Calif., native knows he will have to bring it every day to compete with his teammates in the room.

“We do have a big recruiting class. They bring a lot of competition in the room,” Rivera said. “I like that. You get to wrestle different people and you get different styles. It’s not just the same person every time that you’re wrestling.”

As Vote points out, 2014 All-American Austin Mogg is the only Bulldog who scored at the regional meet that has moved on. Virtually all of the key pieces are back for a Concordia team that appears poised to be one of the favorites in the GPAC dual race as well as a serious threat to land inside the nation’s top 10 come March.

It’s been a meteoric rise for a program that had a roster of just 15 that Vote inherited in his first season in 2012-13. Now the biggest challenge facing Vote may be sifting through a deep team and deciding which 12 wrestlers to take to the North Qualifying Group Tournament on Feb. 21, 2015. The plan that was put into action two years ago is beginning to come to fruition.

“I think we’re definitely right there,” Vote said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We have to tie up our boots and come ready to work every day, but we’re there. We’re moving in the direction we need to. Obviously there’s a lot of work to be done between now and March, but I feel we’re moving in the direction we need to, to make that happen.”

The Bulldogs open the season Saturday, Nov. 8 at the Harold Nichols Cyclone Open hosted by Iowa State University. The demanding schedule also includes a return trip to the Desert Duals (Dec. 20) in Las Vegas, a spot in the Missouri Valley Invite (Jan. 16-17) and a dual with three-time defending national champion Grand View (Nov. 26). Says Vote, “As our team got better, we made our schedule a little tougher.”