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Season Preview: 2020-21 Concordia Wrestling

By Jacob Knabel on Oct. 21, 2020 in Wrestling

2019-20 Dual Record: 13-2 overall, 8-0 GPAC (1st); GPAC tournament champions
2020 NAIA National Championships finish: 15th
Head Coach: Levi Calhoun (3rd year; 22-6 overall dual record)
Returning National Qualifiers: 165 Gabe Crawford (Sr.); 125 Mario Ybarra (Jr.).
Other Key Returner: 165 Issiah Burks (Jr.).
Key Losses: 174 Blake Castillo; 174 Deandre Chery; 141 Cam Devers; 285 Tanner Farmer; 133 Alberto Garcia; 141 Chris Kimball; 184 Darrin Miller; 285 Demitrius Miller; 133 Zack Moistner.
Key Newcomers: 197 Mason Garcia (Fr.); 141 Jeaven Scdoris (Fr.); 157 Tavoris Smith (Jr.); 285 Jacob Telles (Fr.).
2020 GPAC All-Conference: Levi Calhoun (Coach of the Year); Tanner Farmer (Wrestler of the Year; First Team); Gabe Crawford (First Team); Mario Ybarra (First Team); Alberto Garcia (Second Team); Chris Kimball (Second Team); Darrin Miller (Second Team); Deandre Chery (Honorable Mention); Cam Devers (Honorable Mention).
2020 NAIA All-Americans: 285 Tanner Farmer (2nd); 133 Alberto Garcia (5th).

Six of the eight Bulldogs who qualified for the 2020 NAIA Wrestling National Championship have graduated and moved on. That group of veterans played a major role in Concordia’s dominant run through the GPAC last season. Levi Calhoun (now in year three as head coach) guided the Bulldogs to a perfect 8-0 GPAC mark and to a conference tournament title. Now the focus is on building up a squad with plenty of new faces.

As a major positive, Calhoun returns a couple of 2020 individual GPAC champions who help set the tone in the room each day. The overall new dynamic has created a different type of energy for Concordia, which knows it has work to do in order to achieve the championship results that have come to be expected of the program.

“There’s an opportunity to direct the culture in the way that we want it to be for our program,” Calhoun said. “We have a lot of young kids that are hungry to learn. Some kids come from high school programs where they haven’t been coached up to that level so they’re still learning. They’re ceiling is so high. To see those guys come in and ask questions and watch film and get on the mat one-on-one with them has been awesome. We’re wrestling coaches – we want to get on the mat with our guys and help them get better.”

Senior Gabe Crawford (157-pound GPAC champion) and junior Mario Ybarra (125-pound GPAC champion) headline the group of returners. Crawford and Ybarra serve as team captains along with junior Issiah Burks (165). Those three Bulldogs represent the lone holdovers from last season’s 12-man GPAC tournament championship roster. Calhoun is confident in the example they will set for a 2020-21 roster that features 16 freshmen.

The young pups would do well to take after Ybarra, a Scottsbluff, Neb., native who has been fueled by coming up a hair short of achieving All-America honors last season. Over his first two seasons in the navy and white singlet, Ybarra has produced an overall record of 47-22. Continued improvement could make him another candidate in the long line of GPAC Wrestlers of the Year that the program has produced.

“Mario’s biggest success is that he’s reignited his passion for wrestling,” Calhoun said. “He’s found a way to love the sport again. I don’t know that he completely loved the sport when he first got here – but he’s found a way to enjoy it and he’s loving competing and training. That’s been huge for him on a personal level. He’s stepped into such a great leadership role. I’m excited because he’s hungry to get better. He was a point away from being an All-American last year. It’s a heartbreaking thing. Since that moment, he’s had that goal in mind of getting on the podium.”

Wrestling may be an individualized sport when the action gets going on the day of a tournament or dual, but leaders like Ybarra still have an opportunity to impact their teammates on a daily basis. Ybarra wants to be there for his teammates like the upperclassmen were there for him.

“I’ve been very blessed to be part of the team here,” Ybarra said. “I’m thankful that I had them (the 2019-20 seniors) because they helped shape and mold me into the wrestler I am now, and also the leader I am now. Looking towards the upcoming years, I can be that figure for the freshmen coming in for me that the seniors were for me when I came in as a freshman. I want to be that teammate and that person for the younger people coming in.”

For outsiders, Crawford’s run to a GPAC title last season came as a bit of a surprise. The Virginia Beach, Va., native earned the automatic bid to nationals and finished his junior season with 17 wins. Meanwhile, Burks (Hemet, Calif.) claimed 19 victories and was a fifth-place GPAC finisher at 165 pounds. The next step for Burks could be a national tournament appearance of his own.

Admittedly, the departures from last season’s team are significant. Former Nebraska Cornhusker starting offensive lineman Tanner Farmer made big waves in his only semester with the program. Farmer was voted GPAC Wrestler of the Year and went on to earn NAIA national runner up status at heavyweight. The list of key losses also includes three-time national qualifier Deandre Chery (two-time GPAC champ), two-time All-American Alberto Garcia and additional national qualifiers in Chris Kimball, Darrin Miller, Zack Moistner and Blake Sang (changed last name from Castillo).

That means the door is wide open for the newcomers. Calhoun and his staff did not have to go far to find Jeaven Scdoris (141), a state champion at Milford High School who won 139 career matches as a prep. Calhoun says he could foresee “five or six” freshmen starting in the dual lineup. Other rookies to watch include Mason Garcia (197) of Arroyo Grande, Calif., and Jacob Telles (285) of Albuquerque, N.M. Telles steps into a heavyweight spot that has been an area of strength for the program with national runners up coming in 2017 and 2020 (Ceron Francisco and Farmer, respectively). There are also high hopes for Iowa Lakes Community College transfer Tavoris Smith (157).

Calhoun believes there are unknowns in the GPAC beyond the Concordia wrestling room. Says Calhoun, “We’re a different team and a lot of teams (in the GPAC) are that way. Morningside and Briar Cliff are always contenders and Doane is up and coming. There are a lot of unknowns. Our goal is always to win a conference title. That’s the expectation. I don’t know what we’re doing if we’re not trying to win a conference title. It’ll look a little different this year, but we have to have high expectations for ourselves.”

The recent past has certainly set a lofty standard for the program. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, the Bulldogs have won five GPAC regular-season championships and have claimed four GPAC/NAIA North tournament titles. The program has also placed 26th or higher at the national tournament each year during that run (with a program record of eighth place in 2016). For the past seven years in a row, at least one Concordia wrestler has earned a spot on the All-America podium.

Now what? And who will be next on that podium? “I know I can get myself up on that podium. I know I can win the national tournament,” Ybarra said. “I want to prove that … As a team, I’m excited to build the new phase for Concordia Wrestling. The new freshmen will be the face of Concordia Wrestling for the upcoming four years. I’m excited to be put in a leadership position.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly result in some schedule alterations, the Bulldogs are looking forward to opening up their season next Friday (Oct. 30) with a 7 p.m. CT dual at York College. The first home appearance of the 2020-21 campaign is slated for Dec. 10 when Morningside will be in Seward for a GPAC dual.