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Season preview: 2016-17 Concordia wrestling

By Jacob Knabel on Oct. 28, 2016 in Wrestling

At a glance:
2015-16 Dual Record: 13-4 overall, 7-0 GPAC (1st); won NAIA North Qualifier
2016 NAIA National Championships finish: 8th
Head Coach: Andrew Nicola (1st year)
Returning National Qualifiers: Tommy Bailey (165); Foster Bunce (149); Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197); Kodie Cole (133); Ceron Francisco (285); Dmitri Smith (125)
Key Losses: Matt Atwood (184); Travian Cooke (174); Junior Lule (157); Andrew Schulte (141)
Key Newcomers: Giovanni Castillo (125/133); Cameron Devers (141); Victor Haro (149); Jon Lado (157)
2015-16 GPAC All-Conference: Matt Atwood (first team); Ceron Francisco (first team); Junior Lule (first team); Andrew Schulte (first team, GPAC wrestler of the year); Tommy Bailey (second team); Foster Bunce (second team); Ken Burkhardt Jr. (second team); Dmitri Smith (honorable mention)
2016 NAIA All-Americans: Andrew Schulte (141, 1st); Kodie Cole (133, 5th); Ken Burkhardt Jr. (197, 7th)

Season Outlook
The 2016-17 Bulldogs won’t feel complete satisfaction unless they’re posing with a team trophy come March 4, 2017, the date the 2017 NAIA Wrestling National Championships commence. Under previous head coach Dana Vote, the program improved each year. Last season Concordia polished off GPAC and regional titles for the second year in a row and recorded an eighth-place national finish, the best in program history.

Six national qualifiers are back in the fold this year for a team loaded with seniors – 12 to be exact. Three of them – Ken Burkhardt Jr., Kodie Cole and Ceron Francisco – own a combined five All-America plaques.

There’s a lot of familiarity inside the program. The one major difference? Gone is Vote. In is new leader Andrew Nicola, who spent the previous two seasons helping build NCAA Division II California Baptist University into a national power. For Nicola, the time and the opportunity was right to make Concordia his new home.

“I’m pretty fortunate,” Nicola said. “I was given a team that’s really solid. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave Cal Baptist. We had a pretty good thing going there, but I’m excited to see how I can perform as a head coach, how I can relate to the boys and to get my own program running.”

Nicola has been greeted with immediately high expectations. Preseason rankings placed the Bulldogs atop the GPAC/NAIA North Group and at No. 8 in the national coaches’ poll. Nicola has a ready-made winner that boasts eight nationally-ranked individuals. The likes of Burkhardt Jr. (No. 3 at 197), Cole (No. 1 at 133) and Francisco (No. 4 at 285) are expected to make returns to the podium.

With an accomplished senior group at the forefront, Nicola knew he had to get it to buy in from the start. It didn’t take long for that to happen. Nicola’s expertise and passion have won his new wrestlers over.

“I love every aspect of his coaching,” Burkhardt Jr. said. “He’s caring. He’s passionate. He brings a whole load of energy to the room. In these two weeks that I’ve spent with him I’ve learned tremendous amounts of technique and mental aspects of wrestling. I think he’s going to really keep this program going in the right direction.”

Burkhardt Jr. and Cole will both have the opportunity to become the first three-time All-Americans in the school history. Burkhardt Jr. is the winningest wrestler in the history of a program that was reborn in 2009. At 86-48 overall in his first three seasons at Concordia, Burkhardt Jr. simply needs to remain healthy to eclipse the 100-win mark. Meanwhile, Cole is determined to start stronger this season. He’s saved his best for the national tournament in each of the past two years.

Three other seniors also qualified for the national tournament in 2016: Tommy Bailey (165), Foster Bunce (149) and Dmitri Smith (125). All three carry national rankings. Smith has been especially impressive from Nicola’s standpoint. The native of Beaumont, Calif., has progressed steadily throughout his college career. He wants to end it by reaching the podium at nationals.

“These seniors have been awesome,” Nicola said. “I think that’s a direct reflection of why the rest of the guys are on board. They’re seeing the older leadership. They’re embracing the change. They’ve done way more than I thought they would. They could sulk in it and then not achieve their goals, but that’s not the group that we have.”

This team is more than just a senior class. Transfers and California natives Giovanni Castillo (No. 13 at 125) and Kirk Kaliszewski (No. 16 at 165) both garnered preseason national rankings. Castillo, a California junior college state champion, will give Smith a strong push for the starting spot at the top of the dual lineup. Concordia also has high hopes for other junior college imports in Victor Haro (149) and Jon Lado (157). At 141 pounds, freshman Cameron Devers has a chance to make a splash.

Devers and fellow rookie Gabe Crawford (157) have caught the eye of Burkhardt Jr. with their early work in the room.

“One of the things that stands out to me is that a lot of the younger guys have great work ethic, especially Cameron and Crawford,” Burkhardt Jr. said. “Those guys have a lot of talent but it’s not the talent that surprises me, it’s the work they’re putting in. They’re staying after practice and lifting like crazy. They’re sweating. They’re always moving. They’re always attacking. I think that’s the kind of style they need to be successful in college.”

One thing Nicola hasn’t had to worry about is getting his team to work hard. As someone who can never get enough time in the room himself, Nicola has neglected sleep in an effort to maximize his talented roster. Morning and post-practice sessions and study tables three nights per week have become the norm for Concordia.

“Every day I’ve been here I’ve worked out in the morning with a group of guys and every day after practice I have between five and 15 people sticking around,” Nicola said. “Those are the kinds of things that have to happen in order to be a championship team. Putting the time in is imperative. Everybody’s practicing for two hours in the afternoon. You have to put the extra time in and show me that you want to win. I’ve got a group of guys that is showing that every single day.”

Work ethic combined with talent and a belief in a new leader have the potential to take Concordia to great heights this coming March. The Bulldogs expect to continue their dominance at the GPAC level (14-straight conference dual wins) before making a bid for the program’s first-ever team trophy.

Things might look just a bit different with Nicola having replaced Vote, but confidence within the program is as high as ever.

“I don’t want to come across the wrong way,” Nicola said. “I’m just confident in what these guys can do. I see it in them every single workout when I’m asking them to dig a little deeper and give a little more. If we can keep this up how we’re going, mentally and physically, the future is very bright.”

Nicola will make his debut as a head coach when the season opens on Saturday, Nov. 5 at the Grand View University Open in Pleasant Hill, Iowa. The action will get started at 9 a.m. CT.