Down the stretch of last season, former Husker offensive lineman Tanner Farmer’s progression towards a heavyweight national championship match appearance caught plenty of attention. Overshadowed in terms of media coverage and physical stature, teammate Mario Ybarra put together a fine season of his own. There will be no more shadows to hide Ybarra.
The Scottsbluff High School product stands out as the most accomplished competitor on the current Concordia University Wrestling roster. Had a 2-1 loss at the 2020 national tournament gone the other way, Ybarra would have earned All-America honors. That close call has fueled him since March.
“I’m excited to get back to that national tournament,” Ybarra said. “It’s been lingering for the past several months, just how my tournament went. I know I can get myself up on that podium. I know I can win the national tournament. I’m truly that confident that I’m the hardest worker in this country and I just want to prove that. There’s still work to be done, but I’m excited to get to that point.”
Six of the other seven Bulldogs who joined Ybarra at the 2020 NAIA Wrestling National Championship have departed. A retooled roster now includes 16 freshmen. Those dynamics are not lost on Ybarra, who is embracing an increased leadership role. The defending 125-pound GPAC champion commands the respect of the room.
Such respect doesn’t come simply as a byproduct of his 47-22 career record or the conference title that Ybarra claimed last season. He says and does so many things in a way that represent the program with class. Ybarra is faith-filled, well-spoken and driven to succeed on the mat and in the classroom – as his NWCA Scholar All-American award would attest. Across campus, people have taken note of Ybarra’s work ethic.
Ybarra and Concordia are the right match for each other. Says Ybarra, “As cheesy as it is, it just felt right coming here. When I came for my visit, I truly felt like God was calling me here. Obviously we’re Christ-based and I take my faith seriously. It’s a great campus to continue that. The team atmosphere here felt right. They accepted me. There was really no other choice I wanted than coming here.”
A computer science major, Ybarra grew up in a wrestling family. He believes he took up the sport at the age of four. In high school, Ybarra won two district titles and was a 2015 state runner up at Scottsbluff. His talent was already apparent when he made his way to Seward. Ybarra was just scratching the surface during a 2018-19 freshman season that saw him place fifth in the GPAC at 125.
While Ybarra has always had a strong interest in the sport, Head Coach Levi Calhoun has seen a change in Ybarra. His passion and determination appear to be at an all-time high.
“Mario’s biggest success is that he’s reignited his passion for wrestling,” Calhoun said. “He’s found a way to love the sport again. I don’t know that he completely loved the sport when he first got here – but he’s found a way to enjoy it and he’s loving competing and training. That’s been huge for him on a personal level. He’s stepped into such a great leadership role. I’m excited because he’s hungry to get better. He was a point away from being an All-American last year. It’s a heartbreaking thing. Since that moment, he’s had that goal in mind of getting on the podium.”
The step up to the podium is the progression Ybarra seeks after he made a significant leap forward from freshman to sophomore year. He may have come up short of achieving All-America honors, but Ybarra played a large role in the team’s sweep of GPAC regular-season and tournament titles and helped the Bulldogs place 15th at the national championships. Says Ybarra, “It was nice to take home that (GPAC championship trophy).”
Preseason rankings have not be released yet, but Ybarra will likely start off the year with a target on his back as the top wrestler in the GPAC at 125 pounds. He may even rank highly on the national level. Such ratings will have little impact on Ybarra and his work ethic or attitude. If there’s someone who can serve as an example for younger teammates, it’s Ybarra.
As a freshman and sophomore, Ybarra had last year’s senior class to look up to. That group was the backbone of an impressive four-year run that included five total team conference championships. Now Ybarra and company have a chance to write a new chapter, one they hope leads to more GPAC and national accomplishments.
“I’ve been very blessed to be part of the team here,” Ybarra said. “I’m thankful that I had them (the 2019-20 seniors) because they helped shape and mold me into the wrestler I am now, and also the leader I am now. Looking towards the upcoming years, I can be that figure for the freshmen coming in for me that the seniors were for me when I came in as a freshman. I want to be that teammate and that person for the younger people coming in.”
Things have gotten real now that the beginning of the season is just over a week away. The COVID-19 era has put everything into proper perspective.
Says Ybarra, “2020 has been a crazy year. The time off this summer gave me respect and appreciation for the sport. Anything can change any day.”
The ultimate goals Ybarra hopes to achieve will have to wait until 2021. In the New Year, Ybarra resolves to compete his tail off and position himself for a possible national title. As Calhoun said, “We have to have high expectations for ourselves.”