SEWARD, Neb. – After being slotted at No. 15 in the NAIA Wrestling Coaches’ Preseason Top 20 Poll, the Concordia University wrestling team jumped five spots to No. 10 on Nov. 19 and then leaped four more places to sixth with last week’s poll release. No Bulldog wrestling squad had ever been ranked higher than 10th entering the 2014-15 season.
Third-year head coach Dana Vote has orchestrated Concordia’s rapid rise, quickly transitioning the program from a rebuilding effort in year one to second-place finishes in both the GPAC and NAIA North Qualifying Group last season. Even bigger things may be in store for a 2014-15 Bulldog team with eight nationally-ranked wrestlers and two impact junior college transfers set to compete after the conclusion of the first semester.
“It’s been a lot of hard work in the last two years and we have moved in the direction we want to go,” Vote said. “We’re definitely not where we want to be yet, but we’re being recognized for the work we’ve put in. People are noticing that we’re getting there. We’re definitely on the rise.”
Since the Concordia wrestling’s rebirth in 2009 (program previously existed from 1961-78), the Bulldogs have appeared among the NAIA’s top 20 teams in a total of 13 polls. The 2011-12 Concordia squad garnered top 20 rankings in all nine polls, climbing as high as 10th on Feb. 9.
So far this season, Concordia has tallied 14 individual tournament place finishes and owns an overall mark of 4-1 in dual action. The Bulldogs lead the GPAC with a 3-0 conference mark thanks to wins over Doane (35-12), No. 15 Midland (32-9) and No. 25 Northwestern (23-13). Concordia appears to be a strong contender to unseat Morningside, which has won four-straight GPAC titles and carries an active streak of 28-straight GPAC dual wins.
The Bulldogs delivered a statement with a 32-9 win over No. 15 Midland on Dec. 4. The Bulldogs won seven of 10 matches and held advantages of 21-6 in takedowns and 15-3 in back points against one a perennial top-of-the-GPAC opponent.
“I like where we’re at,” Vote said after the dual. “I think we’re putting ourselves in position to accomplish our goal of winning the GPAC championship. Right now we’re wrestling tough. We’re making guys battle. If someone’s going to beat us, they’re going to have to bring their best game.”
Vote has stacked his roster with nine regionally-ranked grapplers that have the Bulldogs at No. 1 in the NAIA’s North group. Few teams across the nation possess such an abundance of talent up and down the lineup.
“Depth’s very important,” Vote said. “I think that’s one of the battles we’re struggling with. We have great depth as far as a tournament team goes, but on the dual side of things it’s hard to have consistency all the time. We’re finding a way to get through right now and we’re just going to continue to build and get better as the season goes on.”
Concordia will be tested significantly on Saturday at the annual Desert Duals in Las Vegas, Nev., where the Bulldogs will dual four teams ranked inside the NAIA’s top 20. The slate includes No. 7 Indiana Tech (8 a.m. PST), No. 11 Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Ariz.) (10 a.m. PST), No. 7 Oklahoma City University (12 p.m. PST) and No. 19 Wayland Baptist University (Texas) (2 p.m. PST). This will be the second year in a row that Vote has taken his team to the Desert Duals. Last season the Bulldogs went 2-2 in Vegas with wins over No. 23 Embry-Riddle and Pacific University (Ore.).
Concordia wrestlers ranked nationally
133 – No. 3 Eric Franklin (11-5)
133 – No. 4 Emilio Rivera (15-5)
149 – No. 5 Enrique Barajas (16-6)
157 – No. 13 Austin Starkey (10-7)
174 – No. 13 Austin Fehlhafer (5-5)
184 – No. 16 Noel Richardson (9-8)
197 – No. 11 Ken Burkhardt Jr. (12-10)
285 – No. 11 Ceron Francisco (14-8)
Remaining GPAC duals
Jan. 22 at Morningside
Jan. 28 vs. Dakota Wesleyan
Feb. 3 vs. Briar Cliff
Feb. 12 vs. Hastings