2017-18 Dual Record: 8-8 overall, 5-3 GPAC (5th)
2018 GPAC Tournament Finish: 4th
2018 NAIA National Championships finish: 22nd
Head Coach: Levi Calhoun (1st year)
Returning National Qualifier: 174 Deandre Chery (Jr.).
Other Key Returners: 141 Cameron Devers (Jr.); 174 Walker Fisher (Sr.); 184 Darrin Miller (Jr.); 184 Josh Nelsen (Sr.)
Key Losses: 133 Giovanni Castillo; 125 Jerry Stepps III.
Key Newcomers: 165 Issiah Burks (Fr.); 125 Gian Facio (Fr.); 133 Alberto Garcia (133); 133/141 Zack Moistner (Jr.); 285 Michael Stann (Fr.); 125 Mario Ybarra (Fr.).
2017-18 GPAC All-Conference: Giovanni Castillo (first team); Jerry Stepps III (first team); Deandre Chery (second team); Josh Nelsen (second team); Cameron Devers (honorable mention); Walker Fisher (honorable mention).
2018 NAIA All-Americans: 133 Giovanni Castillo (5th).
Not far removed from celebrating a third GPAC championship season in a row, the Concordia University wrestling program hopes to grow from some of the bumps in the road experienced during the 2017-18 campaign. However, there were positive developments with three Bulldogs qualifying for the NAIA national championships for the first time and the demonstration of competitiveness within the GPAC. All the while, a couple of grapplers with exciting potential were redshirted.
Now at the controls, former NAIA All-American Levi Calhoun takes over as head coach after spending three seasons as the program’s lead assistant. Calhoun lent his services to Concordia’s GPAC championship seasons in 2015-16 and 2016-17. The program hopes to taste that glory again, and sooner rather than later.
“If you’re competing, your goal is to win,” Calhoun said. “We talk about it. One of our goals is to win conference. I feel like if that’s not your goal, then what are we doing? We should be working to win titles. Our guys should be working to win individual GPAC titles and individual national titles. If we’re not doing that, what are we doing? I tell the guys every time that you should want to be better. You should want to be the best every time you walk into the room.”
The Bulldog wrestling room includes six competitors who received mention in the preseason conference rankings (three nationally ranked). In terms of 2017-18 success, most notable is junior Deandre Chery, the reigning 174-pound GPAC champion and a national qualifier. The native of Miami Gardens, Fla., made huge strides as a sophomore, going 25-15 with a team high 13 pins. Rightfully so, he’s ranked No. 1 in the GPAC and eighth in the NAIA at 174 to begin the campaign.
Chery’s trajectory resembles that of several of the program’s high profile performers in recent years – spend a rookie season developing and learning how to win before transforming into a well-oiled machine capable of reaching the podium come March. The podium could quite literally be the next step up for Chery.
“He’s got a different mentality,” Calhoun said. “He may not be technically the soundest wrestler but he works hard and he wrestles with a lot of passion and a lot of fire. When he gets on top of somebody, that’s where he’s dangerous. It’s no secret. He’s a dangerous wrestler on top. His nickname is psycho because when he gets on top he goes into a different mode. We’re working on honing the other parts of his game, but he’s just a fun wrestler to watch because he will fight through every position.”
A senior at 184-pounds, Josh Nelsen (ranked second in his weight class in the GPAC) qualified for the 2017 NAIA national championships. Nelsen, seniors Walker Fisher (174) and Keanu Tom (157), juniors Cam Devers (141) and Darrin Miller (184) and sophomore Cyrus Marshall (197) join Chery as returners who earned the right to compete at the 2018 GPAC championships. Sophomores Tyler Jorgensen (174) and Cody Lambert (149) also gained significant experience last season.
Additionally, Fisher (No. 4 at 174) and Miller (No. 4 at 184) boast preseason conference rankings. One of the team’s outspoken leaders, Fisher has been an overachiever since arriving via Ashland-Greenwood High School. He has one more shot at reaching the national championships and he isn’t going to let it go to waste. For Fisher and many of his teammates, confidence is key.
“The biggest one that I’m still working on is confidence,” Fisher said. “As a sophomore I just kind of threw myself into the fire. I wasn’t confident in my abilities. I knew I was a decent wrestler, but in any of those tight matches I usually fell on the shorter end of the stick. I think junior year is where I first started to turn that around. I would get into a tight match and I was confident that I would succeed and get a lot of wins. I think that was a breakthrough.”
Calhoun has plenty of depth at the 184 with Jorgensen, Miller and Nelsen all candidates to fill the role. Nelsen put together a solid 24-15 record last season and came up just a single victory short at the conference championships of locking up an automatic bid to nationals. Devers could also be on the brink of a national berth. He started out 11-1 with a title at the Dan Harris Open last season before finishing 25-9.
Then there are the newcomers. The Concordia debut of 133-pounder Alberto Garcia is highly anticipated. He has the ability to capably fill the shoes of departed 2018 All-American Giovanni Castillo at the same weight. The Bulldogs went back to the well once again to land Garcia from Palomar College in California (the same place Concordia found current assistant coach Junior Lule). Said Calhoun of Garcia, “He’s one of those guys who is tough to beat just because he has a different style. He has the potential to be on top of that podium.”
Another transfer from Palomar, junior Zack Moistner (133/141), also figures to have an opportunity to make an immediate impact. Additionally, the freshman class includes the likes of potential contributors Issiah Burks (165), Gian Facio (125), Michael Stann (285) and Mario Ybarra (125).
A native of Scottsbluff, Neb., Ybarra has drawn his share of praise for his work in the room this preseason. If you didn’t know better, you would never guess he’s just a rookie. Says Calhoun, “The kid is one of those guys who came in and didn’t act like a freshman. He’s come in and gone to work. He’s put his nose down. He looks like a senior in the room right now.”
Fisher also lauded the group of young grapplers on the roster. Many are going to push for spots in the dual lineup and for tournament place finishes throughout the season.
“A big thing is a lot of our underclassmen and freshmen have been stepping up,” Fisher said. “A lot of times freshmen come in and are kind of bashful or holding back. I think they all understand that they’re a pretty big part of what we’re trying to do. We have a lot of them scrapping and putting in the work.”
This is a time for optimism within any wrestling program. The Bulldog wrestling program certainly has it. Concordia also has a roster full of wrestlers still trying to prove themselves, as well as a new head coach ready to run with this opportunity.
“I’ve learned a lot from a lot of people,” Calhoun said. “I’ve worked for four different head coaches and I’ve learned something from all of them. That allowed me to develop my own way of doing things, my own philosophy and my own way of approaching my guys. The coolest part is just be able to say, this is the product we’re going to put forward and this is the way we’re going to do it.”
Calhoun will officially make his head coaching debut on Sunday, Nov. 4 when the Bulldogs compete at the Dan Harris Open hosted by Baker University (Baldwin City, Kan.).