Concordia University Wrestling may not have won a banner in 2022-23, but it did make a statement with the way that it exceeded expectations. A recent NCAA Division II All-American himself, Chase Clasen took over the head coaching role and performed like a veteran leader. The Bulldogs shrugged off their preseason placement of sixth in the GPAC and displayed obvious growth on the mats. Clasen seemed to inject belief into his student-athletes – a belief that they belonged on the mat with anyone.
Clasen would tell anyone who asked that the expectations were high within the program, but the results were impressive considering that Concordia placed sixth in the GPAC a year earlier and qualified two wrestlers for nationals. In 2022-23, the Bulldogs vaulted up to third in the league and sent four representatives to the national tournament.
“I think it’s solid,” Clasen said of the foundation being put in place. “We have a bunch of leaders on the team. It wasn’t just me laying down the law. Our foundation is strong because the guys that we’ve got will help us build for the future. It doesn’t end with the four guys that qualified for nationals. We have another 25 guys in that room that are all working towards the same goal. Any time you have a group working towards the same goal, good things happen.”
The good things included a school record-tying 13 dual victories for the Bulldogs, who were dominant while hosting their own series of duals on Dec. 17. Then in January, Concordia enjoyed perhaps its most thrilling day of the season when it won all three conference duals in Sioux City, Iowa, on Jan. 28. The Bulldogs defeated Northwestern, Briar Cliff and Jamestown in locking up a third place GPAC finish. As the season progressed into the conference tournament, Issiah Burks upset his way to a GPAC championship as one of four Concordia grapplers to earn auto bids to the national tournament.
From an individual perspective, Burks’ story truly was a fairytale ending. Seeded fifth in the GPAC at 165 pounds, Burks looked like a man on a mission at the conference tournament in Crete. Burks defeated two nationally ranked opponents and was never seriously challenged in any of his four matches that weekend. A sixth-year member of the program, Burks wrestled at the national tournament on his birthday and rose to No. 4 on the program’s all-time wins list (77). As Clasen said at the time, “There was nobody in the country that was going to beat Issiah Burks this weekend. If this was in the national tournament, he would have been a national champion. When he’s on, he’s on.”
Burks (18-13) was one of four Bulldogs to record at least 15 wins on the season. The others were Creighton Baughman (25-10), Tommy Wentz (20-12) and Stephen Duffy (15-10). A two-time JUCO All-American, Baughman starred as the team’s most consistently excellent competitor. The Papillion, Neb., native spent the entire season ranked nationally at 141 pounds, took second place in the GPAC and won two matches at the national tournament. Baughman was joined at the national site in Park City, Kan., by Burks, Logan Davidson (184) and Tavoris Smith (157).
At the national tournament, Concordia was dealt immensely challenging draws. Clasen liked the way his Bulldogs attacked the challenge. Said Clasen, “Our guys battled tough. With the seeds, we went against some really tough wrestlers all those first-round matches. We went in prepared and battled as tough as we could. It didn’t end in our favor, but you can’t be disappointed when our guys are giving full effort. We laid it on the line. We didn’t get our hand raised at the end of the day, but I’m still proud of the effort and how we competed.”
Both Baughman and Davidson managed to knock off a seeded opponent on the national stage. That experience bodes well for next season when both will be back as top returners on the roster. Davidson made a name for himself after transitioning from football in the first semester to wrestling in the second semester. He added depth to a lineup that was well-suited for success in duals. In addition to names already mentioned, Clasen’s dual lineup often featured the likes of Bryce Karlin (125), Grant Wells (133), Jeaven Scdoris (149), Jose Sanchez (174) and Cy Renney (285). Collectively, they helped the Bulldogs pummel Colby Community College and York University on senior night, the same day the ’22-23 squad equaled the program’s dual wins record.
As Clasen stated that evening, “They’ve made a culture shift in their mindset. The improvement they’ve made from day one has been dramatic. I can’t imagine three or four years down the road because we’re so young. I know we tied the dual record for Concordia, but our guys aren’t satisfied. They want to break the record.”
The confidence Clasen exudes seemed to rub off on members of the team. In his mind, it’s just a matter of time before the Bulldogs are again competing for GPAC championships and making waves on the national stage. The Chadron State College alum doesn’t want to waste a moment. He’ll allow for just a slight breather in reflecting on the season that’s now in the books.
“It’s a 24/7 thought process for sure,” Clasen said. “That whole drive back from the national tournament, I was thinking of how we can beat Grand View. The job never really ends. The preparation for next year started as soon as our matches were over at the national tournament. We’re back at it and focusing on recruiting the best quality kids here that we can that have the same goals as us and will make Concordia proud.”
Clasen and assistant coach Tyree Cox have been hitting the recruiting trail in efforts to infuse additional talent into a roster that was fairly youthful in 2022-23. The 2023-24 squad appears on track to be as experienced as any the program has fielded since the 2019-20 season that yielded GPAC dual and tournament titles. The goal is for the Bulldogs to be able to go toe-to-toe with GPAC rivals and Doane and Morningside and to increase relevancy from a national standpoint.
Recruiting will obviously be critical to reaching those heights. “We set out this year to get the best quality kids that we can,” Clasen said. “We’re super proud of the guys we’ve got so far. We have a high school All-American coming in that was highly sought-after. We have a few other guys who were state placers and state qualifiers. We’re moving forward and getting the best quality kids. We want to get them on campus and show them what Concordia has to offer.”