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SEASON PREVIEW: 2015-16 Concordia wrestling

By Jacob Knabel on Nov. 3, 2015 in Wrestling

At a glance:
2014-15 Dual Record: 9-4 overall, 7-0 GPAC (1st)
2015 NAIA National Championships finish: 12th
Head Coach: Dana Vote (20-22 overall, 4th year)
Key Returners: Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197), Kodie Cole (133), Ceron Francisco (285), Jr Lule (149), DJ McIntyre (285), Andrew Schulte (141), Dmitri Smith (125)
Key Losses: Enrique Barajas (149), Austin Fehlhafer (174), Emilio Rivera (133)
Key Newcomers: Matthew Atwood (141), Travian Cooke (174), Ignace Hakizimana (125), Daniel Melcher (149), Joshua Nelson (174), Alexander Reimers (197)
2014-15 GPAC All-Conference: Enrique Barajas (wrestler of the year; first team), Ceron Francisco (first team), Emilio Rivera (first team), Andrew Schulte (first team), Ken Burkhardt Jr. (second team), Jr Lule (second team), DJ McIntyre (second team), Dmitri Smith (second team), Kodie Cole (honorable mention)
2015 NAIA All-Americans: Andrew Schulte (141, 5th), Ceron Francisco (285, 6th), Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197, 8th), Kodie Cole (133, 8th)
2015 NAIA National Qualifiers: Enrique Barajas (149), Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197), Kodie Cole (133), Austin Fehlhafer (184), Ceron Francisco (285), Jr Lule (149), DJ McIntyre (285), Emilio Rivera (133), Andrew Schulte (141), Dmitri Smith (125)

Season Outlook
By just about any measure, the 2014-15 season marked the most successful in the history of Concordia University wrestling. In head coach Dana Vote’s third season, the Bulldogs went a perfect 7-0 in GPAC duals, outscoring their conference rivals by a combined total of 242-59. Concordia then won the NAIA North Group tournament and placed 12th at the national championships (highest finish in school history).

Yet in some ways, Vote and his accomplished squad feel like they have some unfinished business to settle. The Bulldogs completed the final day of the 2015 national championships in a way that left them unsatisfied entering the offseason. It still eats at Vote as he looks ahead to the 2015-16 campaign.

Says Vote, “We had a bad day. We went 1-9. I think we lost six matches by one point or in overtime. That’s kind of what stuck in the back of our mind. We had great offseason training. I think we’re ready to go. Same thing this year. We want that conference championship and regional championship.”

The Bulldogs appear to have the necessary firepower to piggyback off of last season’s success. Concordia returns seven of its 10 national qualifiers and all four All-Americans from this past March. Plus Vote brings in a recruiting class that he believes is as good as any that he’s had since rising to the helm of the program.

Chief among the returnees is junior 141-pounder Andrew Schulte, who reached the national semifinals last season and earned All-America status with a fifth-place finish. Known for his aggressive style, Schulte went 20-4 overall last season after beginning his Concordia career with the second semester. Schulte is joined on this year’s roster by other 2015 All-Americans in juniors Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197), Kodie Cole (133) and Ceron Francisco (285).

One of the team’s most improved wrestlers last year, Francisco caught plenty of attention at the national tournament due to his immense physical stature and with his surprising run to the semifinals as a wild card selection. Francisco reached the semis with wins over three-straight highly-rated opponents. All four returning All-Americans are ranked No. 1 in the region for their respective weight classes and Vote has lofty aspirations for all of them.

“If you’re a returning All-American there’s no reason you shouldn’t have your vision on a national championship,” Vote said. “I think those guys do. They’re all taking great steps, moving forward and working hard.”

Vote says this year’s squad will have improved leadership and Schulte points out that the latest Bulldog wrestling squad possesses outstanding chemistry. Those ingredients spice up a roster laden with talent and depth. Concordia believes it has the makings to come through on a top-five national finish that it fell short of last season.

“I think we’re capable of doing big things,” Schulte said. “I think it’s important we don’t coast off old accomplishments but still appreciate where we came from. I know we’re going to do big things this year. Guys are working really hard and they’re working really smart, too. I know we’re going to be successful.”

Other returning national qualifiers include juniors Jr Lule (157) and Dmitri Smith (125) and senior DJ McIntyre (285). Lule and Smith are two of the nine Bulldogs to garner preseason national rankings. Four individuals begin the season ranked amongst the top five NAIA wrestlers at their respective weights. In addition, 11 are ranked on the regional level.

Of them, two are new to the program – junior Ignace Hakizimana (125), ranked No. 16 in the NAIA, and freshman Josh Nelson (174), ranked fifth in the region. The list of potential impact first-year Bulldogs hardly ends there. Others such as senior 184-pounder Matt Atwood (transfer from Bethany College), freshman 174-pounder Travian Cooke (Holly Springs, N.C.), junior 149-pounder Daniel Melcher (transfer from Pratt Community College) and freshman 197-pounder Alexander Reimers (David City Aquinas High School) could crack the rankings at some point.

It all points to a strong dual lineup and could mean Vote has a difficult time deciding on which dozen grapplers to enter into the regional tournament that will be hosted by Concordia this coming spring. The 12 that are chosen will be expected to perform at a high level.

“As a team we’re getting better each year,” Vote said. “We’re adding depth. We expect that the 12 guys we put in the regional tournament to be tough enough to get to the national tournament. Our goal is to send all 12 guys to the national tournament. I think we have the depth to do it. I tell our guys that if you’re good enough to get in our top 12 you should be good enough to go to the national tournament. That’s where we’re building towards.”

Vote has continued to preach a championship lifestyle that places no limitations upon any individuals. Vote has mixed and matched former high school standouts with junior college transfers in pushing the program to unprecedented heights. The Bulldogs have garnered the last two GPAC wrestler of the year awards (Emilio Rivera, 2014, and Enrique Barajas, 2015) and have risen from the bottom of the GPAC and the region to the top.

The former Buena Vista University top assistant has maximized the talent of his recruits and made them all believers in themselves.

“I want to be a national champion. That’s the goal I have,” Schulte said. “An undefeated season would be pretty sweet. Sometimes I watch my interview from last year after nationals. When I see my face and how sad I looked, I want to be better than that guy.”

Based on the preseason rankings, Concordia is the favorite to capture a second-straight GPAC championship. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 8 in the NAIA, meaning they are already knocking on the door of the program’s highest-ever national ranking (No. 6 in two different polls last season). Roles have reversed and now teams will be looking to knock the Bulldogs off their perch.

“We should be right there in the hunt for (the GPAC title),” Vote said. “I’d say we’re the favorites right now, but that’s not how we look at it. We take it one match at a time and hopefully we can win the conference.”

Concordia will open up the 2015-16 season on Saturday (Nov. 7) when they compete at the loaded Grand View University Open in Pleasant Hill, Iowa. The nationally-ranked Bulldogs will make their home debut on Nov. 10 when No. 11 York College visits Walz Arena for a nonconference dual.