SEWARD, Neb. – The most dominant wrestling program in the GPAC continues to reside in Seward. Concordia University wrestling has a way of rising to the occasion. Up against a Hastings squad hoping to share the conference dual title, the 15th-ranked Bulldogs won eight of 10 individual bouts and locked up a third-straight GPAC championship courtesy of a dominant 28-6 victory in front of the home fans on Thursday night.
It was a fitting sendoff for an 11-member senior class that grappled inside Walz Arena for the final time. The seniors have been essential pieces of a program that has extended its GPAC dual win streak to 21. First-year head coach Andrew Nicola’s squad finished the dual season with records of 11-4 overall and 7-0 in conference action.
“I’m just pumped up because I see how elated the boys are. That excites me.” Nicola said. “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.”
It was an emotional night for the senior class that has significantly elevated the profile of the program. Even campus pastor Ryan Matthias, also the public address announcer, choked up when reading crowd favorite Ceron Francisco’s senior message. Francisco didn’t disappoint in his last bout inside Walz Arena. He triggered a thunderous roar when he pinned Daniel Gonzalez in the second period, putting a cherry on top of the dual.
What a way to go out for Francisco, who is 19-2 and ranked No. 3 nationally at 285 pounds.
“It’s been amazing being part of this program and starting from the ground up,” Francisco said. “It was just great to be part of a program that got better each year. We faced a lot of adversity, but God was on our side the whole time. We were able to come out on top for the third time in a row.”
Francisco was one of five seniors in Thursday’s lineup. Four of them came away with victories. At 141 pounds, Foster Bunce shook off some of the frustrations he’s dealt with this season and upset No. 4 Christian Mesa. Down 3-2, Bunce took down Mesa in the final seconds in another of the night’s most memorable moments.
A horse all season long, senior and fifth-ranked Ken Burkhardt Jr. held off 13th-ranked Jeremiah Gerl, 3-2, for a victory at 197 pounds. In another battle of nationally-ranked scrappers, No. 9 Kodie Cole upended No. 11 Trey Trujillo, 5-1, at 133 pounds. All Cole needed was a pair of takedowns to register his 18th victory of the season.
At 165, junior and 16th-ranked Kirk Kaliszewski continued his incredible roll. He’s now won five-straight matches – all in GPAC duals. This time around, he recorded five takedowns and four near fall points in a 16-6 major decision and slight upset of No. 15 Austin Moyer. Other Bulldog winners were Gabe Crawford at 157, Walker Fisher at 174 and Josh Nelsen at 184.
It all added up to yet another win by a comfortable margin over a conference opponent.
“The mentality of selflessness and team is really playing in our favor,” Nicola said. “They want to fight for each other. There’s a vibe in the room where these guys want to wrestle hard for each other. There were some big upsets tonight, in particular Foster Bunce.”
The Broncos (11-4, 5-2 GPAC) picked up wins at 125 (Nolan Laux) and at 149 (Chris Vaughan). The team scored was tied, 6-6, before Concordia went on a run of six-straight wins to end the night.
Postseason tournament action looms for the Bulldogs, who now turn their attention to the NAIA North Group Qualifier hosted by Doane on Feb. 18. The event is used to determine qualifiers for the NAIA national championships (March 3-4). The NAIA North Group is made up of all eight GPAC institutions that sponsor wrestling programs. Concordia has won the regional event two years in a row.
“We don’t prepare any different,” Francisco said. “We have the same mentality going in. I was able to come out on top last year (at regionals). If it’s God’s will, I’ll do the same thing. I want to be doing my best when this time comes.”