It wasn’t enough for the Concordia University Wrestling program to simply adjust to a roster transformation during the 2020-21 season. The Bulldogs also had to deal with circumstances they had never imagined would come about during a trying campaign that would test the resolve of Head Coach Levi Calhoun, his staff and wrestlers. When the stakes were highest, feel-good moments were produced in the form of freshman Jacob Telles winning a GPAC individual title and junior captain Mario Ybarra earning a spot on the All-America podium.
Down the road, this season may be looked back upon as an important year of growth and reflection. Make no mistake, this wasn’t just about results on the mat. In some of the most difficult times of his life, Calhoun came to realize what’s so special about this team, this program and this athletic department.
“It was the toughest year of my life,” Calhoun said. “I lost my mom to COVID in December, in the middle of the season. It was really hard and it still is obviously. I’m tearing up right now. To be able to come back and be around the guys was really therapeutic for me, just to get back to some sense of normalcy. I told those guys every day how much I loved them and how much I cared about them, and how much I appreciated them being there for me. More than anything, it just showed me that I’m in the right place.”
Calhoun went on to thank assistant coach Tyree Cox, athletic trainer Eric Lundberg and Concordia athletic leadership Devin Smith and Angela Muller for helping steer the ship when Calhoun took time away from the program. Calhoun missed all of the events during the month of December while grieving the loss of his mother Joan, and because of a positive COVID-19 test of his own. Inside the wrestling room, a multitude of injuries impacted the lineup in a significant way.
It felt at times like the hits just kept coming. Even so, Calhoun gained perspective while finding the team as a source of joy in otherwise challenging moments. Said Calhoun, “I enjoyed just seeing all these young guys go out and battle. We had a lot of young kids we threw in the lineup, and that’s tough coming in as a true freshman and getting thrown to the wolves. We had guys come in and battle. Jacob is one of those guys who shown through. The crowning highlight was Mario earning that All-American spot. There was a sense of relief that he got that done.”
That relief comes from knowing how close Ybarra had been to All-America status a year earlier. It felt like such a well-deserved feeling of happiness in a long and sometimes cruel winter. As defending GPAC champions, the 2020-21 Bulldogs finished in a tie for fifth in the conference regular season standings and then placed sixth at the GPAC tournament. The Bulldogs knew it would be difficult to duplicate the results from the 2019-20 season considering the losses to graduation.
On the plus side, Gabe Crawford made a second-straight appearance at nationals after fighting through injuries of his own. Telles led the team in both wins (33) and pins (13) and made waves with an upset victory in the GPAC heavyweight championship match. In addition, freshmen such as Mason Garcia, TJ Huber, Jeaven Scdoris and Carter Willis gained extensive experience. Garcia notched 19 wins, Huber earned a reputation as one of the program’s hardest workers and Scdoris improved tremendously late in the season.
Unfortunately for Ybarra, he was shelved for the entire months of January and February. Just when he was ready to make his return late in the regular season, he suffered a broken nose. That injury kept him from the GPAC tournament. The native of Scottsbluff, Neb., still garnered an at-large berth to nationals – and he made the most of it. Ybarra finished in seventh place nationally at 133 pounds.
“Last year he was four seconds away from being an All-American so that was eating at him all year,” Calhoun said. “Then he breaks his nose and had seven different fractures in his nose. It was a pretty severe injury. He couldn’t come back until the national tournament. He wrestled really well. To come back from that speaks to his toughness, his resilience and ability to get it done. I get so nervous for these kids because they work so hard. That moment of having them jump into your arms (after clinching All-America honors) – there’s nothing like it.”
The season put together by Telles is worth further examination. The big man from Albuquerque, N.M., never broke down while wrestling more than 40 matches, a major accomplishment during a season when many tournaments were canceled or restricted in number. Telles placed at five different tournaments before his major breakthrough at the GPAC championships.
Said Calhoun, “We’re very impressed with Jacob. He’s a kid that wasn’t sure if he was going to wrestle in college. We convinced him to give it a try and he fell in love with it. I think he had more wins than anybody in the entire country. He wrestled a lot of matches. That alone speaks to how tough he is – it’s really hard to wrestle that many matches. As a true freshman, to win a conference title, qualify for nationals and wrestle some really good matches at the national tournament, we’re so excited for his future and for him to continue to grow.”
Ybarra was named a captain along with Crawford and Issiah Burks. They have earned respect within the program for their work on the mat and as leaders. Burks came up short of qualifying for nationals, but produced a 23-10 overall record in a solid season. The presence of these three Bulldogs was especially important during a year when Calhoun frequently loaded the dual lineup with four or more freshmen.
The growing pains are expected to lead to bigger and better things for the program in 2021-22 when the lineup will be much more experienced.
Says Calhoun, “Definitely excited to get to work for next season. Jeaven had a very successful high school career at Milford High. He came in and had to make some adjustments to the college game, and he’s done that. He was wrestling some of his best matches towards the end of the year. There were so many guys that were able to get matches and got so much better. TJ Huber didn’t get to wrestle at the conference tournament, but he’s one of our hardest workers. Guys like that we’re just excited to continue to work with and continue to grow and build this program back up to a conference championship team.”
No doubt Calhoun is motivated to make that happen. In so many ways, next year figures to be different, but it wasn’t all bad in 2020-21. Calhoun speaks from the heart when he says, “I’m definitely happy where I’m at and I’m proud to be these guys’ coach.”