On the day they first met, Ceron Francisco bear hugged Andrew Nicola. It was more than just a warm welcome. It symbolized the embracement of a new leader. It meant a lot to Nicola, whose title as Concordia head wrestling coach is still barely two weeks old.
“I’m supposed to lead by example,” Francisco said. “It was important for me to find out what Coach Nicola was about and welcome him so guys can see he’s not an enemy.”
In some ways, the likes of All-Americans in Francisco, Ken Burkhardt Jr. and Kodie Cole are still getting over the shockwaves that hit them in early September when former head coach Dana Vote left to become director of wrestling operations at Iowa State University. Vote had been all the seniors knew.
Burkhardt Jr. put it bluntly when asked for his reaction.
“To be honest, I was quite ticked off,” Burkhardt Jr. said. “There were a lot of emotions. Then again, Coach Vote’s done a lot for me. I’m just happy for him to move forward in his career. I love the guy to death and hope the best for him at Iowa State.”
Though their world was shaken up, Concordia wrestlers have remained unified by a common goal: they want a team trophy this coming March. Nicola hasn’t shied away from talking about that lofty aspiration in practices. The Bulldogs are buying in.
Says Burkhardt Jr., “That’s definitely one of my top priorities for this season. I want to achieve big things, but I also want to put in the time to help the other guys achieve big things.”
Big things will be expected of stalwarts such as Burkhardt Jr., ranked No. 3 nationally at 197 pounds, as well as others like Cole (No. 1 at 133), Francisco (No. 4 at 285) and Dmitri Smith (No. 12 at 125).
One thing Nicola emphasized immediately? An expectation of success.
“He wants to win,” Cole said. “He’s ready to do what we need to do in order to be at the top, not only individually, but as a team – and not only on the mat, but off the mat as well. Academics are something big that we’re going to focus on. We’re just going to continue to make strides until we’re where we need to be.”
Nicola is highly confident and highly energetic and brings a winning pedigree after helping raise the California Baptist program to new heights over two seasons as an assistant in Riverside, Calif. Success has followed Nicola throughout his journey that has taken him to Cumberland University (Tenn.) and the University of Central Missouri, among other stops.
Sure there is an ongoing adjustment period, but the group of senior leaders has helped build a bridge in the transition to a new coaching era.
“We’re still getting used to it,” Francisco said. “But the transition was real smooth. Devin (Smith) and Angela (Muller) brought in a great coach. Everybody’s buying into the stuff he’s implementing and our training. I’m just excited about what we can do this year.”
Nicola has been pleased with the response he’s gotten in the room so far. He even rewarded them on Thursday (Oct. 20) with a shortened practice – precisely 27-and-a-half minutes. But they would only finish in that amount of time if everyone went all out during the grueling workout. That’s exactly what happened.
One thing Nicola never lacks: energy.
“I like the intensity he brings to the room,” Smith said. “I like that he’s always with us and expects us to grind. He’s emphasized picking up the tempo in practice and to always work hard.”
Some outsiders probably hoped that Vote’s departure would fracture the program, perhaps drive an emotional dagger into the seniors who were recruited and coached by Vote. But you won’t find any Debbie Downers inside the PE Center that houses the Bulldog wrestling room. Concordia is all in on Nicola. Most importantly, the team’s accomplished seniors have embraced him.
“A lot of us probably looked at Coach Vote leaving as a downfall or a setback,” Cole said. “After we met Coach Nicola and saw what he can bring to the team, we’re really excited about what’s going to happen this year.”
Added Burkhardt Jr., “Right now everybody’s looking at Concordia like, ‘Oh, they’re going to choke. They’re missing this guy and this guy. Their coach left them.’ I think with Coach Nicola, we’re just going to defy all those doubts and achieve things people didn’t think we could achieve.”