Seven national top-10 team finishes
PELLA—Wrestling in arguably the toughest conference in Division III—the Iowa Conference—seventh-year head coach Eric Van Kley and the resurgent Central College Dutch are ready to rise to the challenge.
Following two winless seasons from 2006-08, Van Kley has piloted the Dutch to four-straight 10-plus-win dual campaigns. The 25 wins from 2011-13 are the most in a two-season span since 1993-95. Central has also sent individuals to the past three NCAA Division III championships.
The Dutch climbed as high as No. 15 in the National Wrestling Coaches Association poll, but finished the season unranked. At one point, six Iowa Conference schools ranked in the top 15.
“We love competing in the Iowa Conference,” Van Kley said. “We would not trade it for anything. Every conference dual is a battle and we embrace every aspect. We feel like if we are competitive in our conference, we are competitive nationally. It’s that much of a parallel. It was like SEC football last year—six of the top 15 teams in the country were from our conference. That’s incredible.”
Last season Central was 3-4 in conference duals with two 35-plus-point victories. The Dutch suffered a one-point loss, as well as a two-point loss at the dual finals.
“We’re right there, but we need to keep getting better,” said Van Kley. “This conference is fiercely competitive all the way through. Our goal is to climb the standings, but it is going to be challenging. We need to rise to the challenge.”
Having struggled to field a lineup prior to Van Kley’s arrival, the Dutch roster has surged to nearly 50 wrestlers, with five returning starters and 18 returning letterwinners.
“We have built a lot of momentum in this program over the past couple years,” said Van Kley. “It has been fun to see the program grow in a variety of areas, including roster size, which has grown parallel to on-the-mat success. It is an exciting time to be a part of Central wrestling.
“It is nice to have a lot of experience back. We are excited about our incoming freshmen, but what helps the development of young wrestlers is a core of veteran wrestlers. A good portion of the lineup is seasoned in varsity competitions and success. We are in a good place to start the season.”
125—Junior Daniel Page is poised for big things after a breakout year in 2012-13. An all-Iowa Conference selection and team most valuable performer, Page was an NCAA Division III tournament qualifier last season. He tallied a 26-8 overall record and was undefeated in conference duals. Page placed second at the NCAA Division III regional and the MSOE (Wis.) Invitational and third at the Knox (Ill.) Invitational.
“Daniel is a tremendous leader,” Van Kley said. “He’s done a lot of good things at Central thus far and is excited and prepared for the next two years.”
Page opened the season No. 5 at 125 pounds in the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) Division III preseason rankings.
The Dutch return junior letterwinner Abe Fernandez, as well.
133—Sophomore Aaron Anderson opened the season as an in-the-mix guy and finished with a 22-12 record. Anderson placed first at the MSOE (Wis.) Invitational and the Augsburg (Minn.) Invitational. He also received the Outstanding Freshman Award.
Anderson is joined by sophomore letterwinner Shane LeBlanc (4-4), senior Chris Wedemeyer and two freshmen.
“Aaron really stepped up and did a great job as a freshman starter,” said Van Kley. “He held that position for the whole year. There will be some tough competition from our returners and Jordan—one of the many talented incoming wrestlers we have. He will have to compete well to keep his position.”
141—Van Kley describes 141 as “up for grabs.” Central returns only one wrestler in this weight class—a three-time letterwinner and senior Bryan Connolly, who was 4-6 last winter. The roster currently sports no other competitors at 141, but that will likely change by the start of the season.
“Bryan Connolly is a very solid returner, but there are some other returners and younger guys who want to compete for this spot in the lineup,” Van Kley said.
Jordan Richardson, a state placewinner out of Petersburg, Ill., is one of the potential competitors for this spot. Richardson is listed at 133/141 pounds.
149—The reason for the void at 141 is senior three-time letterwinner TJ Peretti, who moved up one weight class following a 16-9 season at 141. Peretti placed first at the MSOE (Wis.) Invitational and fifth at the NCAA Division III regional.
“TJ is moving up a weight class this year, which is an adjustment, but he is really committed to the shift,” said Van Kley. “We see that as a solid place for him.”
In addition to Peretti, the Dutch return two-time letterwinner Carlos Hernandez, who was 5-4, and welcome freshman Ryan Vandall, a state champion out of Phoenix, Ariz.
“Carlos is working hard and doing some good things and Ryan is a very talented freshman,” Van Kley said. “This spot will not come easy.”
157/165—The situations at the two middle weights are a bit murkier, but not in the sense that they lack talent. Van Kley believes there are many quality wrestlers at both weights, but it is difficult to determine who will emerge as the starter at each spot.
Seniors Chris Hallinan and Keegan Overbey are the most experienced wrestlers at 157. Hallinan is a two-time letterwinner who posted a 7-5 mark, while Overbey is a three-time letterwinner who was 5-5.
Sophomore letterwinner Jon Heffner finished his freshman campaign with an 8-14 record at 165, placing second at the Augsburg (Minn.) Invitational. Sophomore letterwinners Tyler Booth (5-8) and Mika Fellows (6-7) are in the mix, as is senior letterwinner Andrew O’Brien (0-4).
“There are a lot of good newcomers and returners,” said Van Kley. “I feel good about these weight classes, but we are going to need part of the year to determine who the eventual starter is at each spot. Multiple guys are going to get the chance to compete.”
174—Five wrestlers return at 174, led by junior two-time letterwinner Sam Apland. Apland was 12-8 and placed third at the Augsburg (Minn.) Invitational. Classmate Dillon Anderson is the only other returning letterwinner at 174.
The Dutch also welcome three freshman wrestlers at this weight class.
“Sam gained some experience and had some success last year, so he has a good shot,” Van Kley said. “We also have a handful of returners and freshmen that will compete for this spot.”
184—Sophomore Alex Dean is the incumbent starter and only returner at 184. Dean posted a 5-7 record as a freshman. The weight class is loaded with talented freshmen led by Zeke Gaeta, a state finalist from Bremerton, Wash. The class also includes Dustin Thibeault of Billerica, Mass. and Isaiah Smith of Calumet Park, Ill. Junior Nick Lemmon of Auburn, Wash. is also in the fray.
“Alex Dean is experienced and showed some positive things in his freshman season,” said Van Kley. “There are some seriously talented freshmen at this weight, though. It will be a battle to retain this spot, no matter who ends up with it.”
197—It is a case of same face, new place at 197, as junior Tyler Lowy bumps up one weight class. Lowy finished the season with a 20-11 record at 184 and placed second at the MSOE (Wis.) Invitational. He was one of three 20-plus-win wrestlers for the Dutch last season.
Junior David Demmer, who was 5-7, and freshman Ben Miller, a state champion from Willcox, Ariz., make up the remainder of the field.
“Whatever weight Tyler is at, we are going to feel good about that weight,” Van Kley said. “He is a talented wrestler and truly strives to be better. Ben is a very talented freshman and he will push Tyler, as will David.”
285—Perhaps the deepest weight class for the Dutch, Central returns four at 285, joined by two freshmen. But there’s little varsity experience.
Sophomore Jay Pike (2-1) is the lone letterwinner of the bunch, but is joined by classmates Trent Baker, Jordan Rouse and Francisco Ruiz. The two freshmen are Edwin Etienne of Lehigh Acres, Fla. and Jaime Miranda of Aberdeen, Wash. Etienne is a Florida state champion, while Miranda is a Washington state finalist. Both are members of the Dutch football team, as well.
“There is going to be a lot of in-house competition for this spot,” said Van Kley. “Trent, Jay, Jaime and Edwin will need to bring quality effort each and every day. We do not know who will emerge as the starter, but all have the opportunity to contribute.
“We look at the depth of our weights as a big strength of our program. One of the reasons we have improved is because of the quality of competition we have on a daily basis. That has been a goal of ours for many years.”
Schedule—The Dutch wrestle in five early-season invitationals—including one in Milwaukee, Wis.—capped by the Central Invitational January 11 in Pella.
Van Kley views the non-conference schedule as preparation for the conference season and said it gives Central wrestlers the opportunity to compete in front of their home crowd—wherever that may be.
“The Iowa Conference is far-and-away the toughest conference in Division III,” Van Kley said. “In order to prepare for that, we need to expose ourselves to quality competition, whether that is in Iowa or around the country. Our guys embrace the opportunity to wrestle talented teams from other states. It is a reflection of our roster, as well. We have guys from those different areas, so we want to wrestle in front of those Dutch support systems outside Iowa.”
The dual season opens with conference foe Coe November 21 in Cedar Rapids and Central ventures as far as Minnesota, Florida and Indiana. The Dutch visit Storm Lake for three conference duals—Buena Vista, Dubuque and Wartburg—January 25. The regular season culminates with the Iowa Conference dual finals February 14.
Following the regular season, Central competes in the NCAA Division III Central Regional March 2—the new selection process instituted in 2013. Previously the 170-wrestler field was determined by seven automatic qualifying tournaments at the conference level and two regional tournaments. The new format streamlines to a six-site regional system with the top three finishers in each weight class advancing to the NCAA Division III championships—a field of 180.
The format is more difficult, but Van Kley believes it makes qualifying that much more meaningful.
“The regional format is a good thing,” said Van Kley. “I think guys settled into it last year and it makes getting to the national tournament that much more challenging and special. The format will play itself out and be a good fit for Division III. We have a very challenging regional, but that is what qualifying for the national tournament is supposed to be—challenging.”
Coaching staff—Van Kley heads a four-man staff with combined 40-plus years in the Central wrestling program.
Kevin Donahue, a former Division III all-American at Cornell College, is in his third season as an assistant coach. Former Wartburg wrestler Bob Kuennen is in his fifth season as an assistant and was a Scholar All-American. Matt Diehl is in his 23rd season as a member of the staff. The former Dutch all-American served as the program’s head coach from 1996-2004.
“We are very blessed with a tremendous coaching staff,” Van Kley said. “Kevin, Bob and Matt are committed to developing our guys as wrestlers and as people. We have a wealth of experience and continuity. They are a huge reason for the improvements we’ve made.”
Fan support—Fanfare has grown with the program and Van Kley is grateful for the support from the community. It makes Kuyper Gym a difficult place for opposing schools to wrestle.
“Fan support has grown with our program,” Van Kley said. “It was hard to draw fans early on, but now we have tremendous home crowds and it is a lot of fun to wrestle in front of large crowd. We are very thankful and appreciative of the support we receive.”
Central takes the mat Saturday at the Knox (Ill.) Invitational in Galesburg, Ill.