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Season-in-review: GPAC dominance continues under Nicola

By Jacob Knabel on Mar. 24, 2017 in Wrestling

Less than a month separated the announcement of Andrew Nicola’s hiring and the first date on the 2016-17 Concordia University wrestling schedule. Outsiders may have wondered (perhaps hoped) if the transition would stamp out the momentum the program had built under previous head coach Dana Vote.

Any questions about that were answered quite emphatically on Feb. 9 when the Walz Arena crowd roared its approval throughout a 28-6 dual win over Hastings. The loudest ovations came when fan favorite Ceron Francisco polished off the victory by sticking his opponent to the mat.

It was a big moment for Nicola, who proved he could keep the program humming. Said Nicola afterwards, “I’m just pumped because I see how elated the boys are. That excites me. We put in the work. The plan from day one when I got here was to three-peat the conference title and they came through on senior night and dominated.”

Dominance on the conference and regional levels has defined Bulldog wrestling for three years running. Concordia has now won each of its last 21 GPAC duals courtesy of three-straight 7-0 conference records. Constants in that success have been the likes of seniors Ken Burkhardt Jr., Kodie Cole and Ceron Francisco. The three of which own a combined seven All-America awards.

Early in this academic year, those same seniors felt like a rug had been pulled out from under them. The only college coach they knew left for an opportunity at Iowa State University. Said Burkhardt Jr. prior to the season, “To be honest, I was quite ticked off.”

Such emotions cooled down. A calmness returned when Bulldog wrestlers realized everyone wanted the same things, Nicola included. As seniors, Burkhardt Jr. and Francisco had their best seasons yet. Francisco captivated an entire community with his run to the national championship match. Tears of joy flowed and the arena exploded when Francisco outlasted Grand View’s second-ranked Jacob Laden in the semifinal round.

It was further evidence that Francisco and the other seniors had bought in.

“I think it’s important that the seniors bought in,” Nicola said. “At the end of the day, they could be telling me that they want to buy in, but if they go home and are saying negative things, it’s going to be easy for the young guys to be influenced. I look at the leadership we had from Dmitri (Smith), Kodie, Tommy (Bailey), Ceron and Ken, and I just feel confident that they were saying good things. ‘Let’s buy in. Let’s embrace Nicola. He’s passionate about wrestling and about helping us achieve our goals.’ Having that senior leadership and the way they took me in was incredible.”

Burkhardt Jr. and Francisco will graduate as perhaps the two greatest wrestlers in program history. They are the only two Bulldogs ever to reach 100 career wins. Burkhardt Jr. is the school’s only three-time All-American. Francisco is a two-time All-American and was tabbed the 2016-17 GPAC wrestler of the year. As seniors, Burkhardt Jr. went 36-11 and Francisco went 26-2.

“Ceron” is all you have to say around campus for people to know you’re talking about the accomplished Concordia heavyweight. He’s the type of student-athlete that completely transcended the sport of wrestling.

“I’m so proud of Ceron,” Nicola said after the national championships. “He is just a warrior. He is a relentless wrestler with a heart of gold. He’s the epitome of what Concordia wrestling is all about. He is humble in victory and humble in defeat. He is a great leader on and off the mats. He is irreplaceable in terms of what he has done and the way that he represents us.”

Ceron was one of nine Bulldogs to qualify for the national championships during another memorable season for the program. Six of the nine were seniors, including Foster Bunce, Cole, DJ McIntyre and Smith, in addition to Burkhardt Jr. and Francisco.

That wealth of experience and talent made life easier for Nicola, who had to quickly adapt to a new team and new surroundings. He had previously served as an assistant coach at NCAA Division II California Baptist University.

“I took the job in early October and my whole life was a whirlwind at the time,” Nicola said. “I was moving from California to Nebraska. I moved here, worked for one day and then left for a week for my little brother’s wedding. I am very fortunate and blessed to have Coach (Levi) Calhoun and Coach (Junior) Lule here to continue to lead the program like they had transitioning from one head coach to a new head coach. I was actually having trouble focusing on my brother’s wedding because I knew I had a brand new team waiting for me. The transition actually went very smooth because the guys were so welcoming and Coach Calhoun and Coach Lule were so awesome.”

Nicola garnered GPAC and NAIA North Qualifier coach of the year honors after a season that ended with more hardware. At the national championships in March, Concordia placed 15th, marking the fourth top-25 national finish in a row for the program.

The Bulldogs had hopes of placing higher at nationals, but the season as a whole provided plenty more thrills than anguish.

“I knew I was inheriting a pretty solid team that was going to be ranked No. 1 in the conference and in the region,” Nicola said. “At the end of the day, there’s nothing that I’m disappointed with. I wish a couple of small things would have been different. There are always those ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ in any season, but we won the conference. It’s hard not be proud. We had the conference wrestler of the year, we had a lot of all-conference wrestlers and we won the region. I can’t think of any actual negatives. Of course we wanted to be a trophy team. All that does is encourage us to keep working.”

The next big challenge for Nicola will be keeping the train rolling without the services of the most accomplished classmates in program history. Nicola would like to show that there’s another reachable standard on the horizon that the program has never attained.

“There are going to be two keys to breaking in (as a trophy team) and I wholeheartedly believe we’re on pace to do that,” Nicola said. “It’s going to take development of the guys we already have returning. We’re losing six of our nine national qualifiers so we have to develop our guys. Then it comes down to recruiting. We’re pretty blessed with some of the guys we’re recruiting. If we recruit the right guys and keep developing them, we’re going to rise up the ranks for sure.”