Seven national top-10 team finishes
2013-14 dual record: 7-10
2013-14 Iowa Conference finish: 1-6 (seventh)
2013-14 letterwinners lost: 7
Letterwinners returning for 2014-15: 15
2013-14 NCAA Division III qualifiers returning: 1 (Daniel Page, 125)
All-time NCAA Division III top-10 team finishes: 7
Individual national champions: 3
After sending one qualifier to the NCAA Division III national meet the past four years, a young Central College wrestling team will look to continue its ascent.
Eighth-year coach Eric Van Kley and the Dutch are coming off a 7-10 dual record in 2013-14. The team had won at least 10 duals in the previous four seasons but a difficult non-conference schedule and some untimely injuries temporarily slowed Central’s steady climb. Central finished the dual season on a high note however, winning three of the last four duals, including defeating Simpson twice to finish in seventh place in the always competitive Iowa Conference.
Van Kley looks to see his team get over the hump and work its way further up the standings.
“We want to start climbing our way into the top half of the Iowa Conference,” Van Kley said. “The Iowa Conference is fiercely competitive as far as wrestling goes, but we think that’s a good thing. I think we’ve got a group of guys and a coaching staff that really sees that as a goal.”
Last year marked the fourth straight season that a Dutch wrestler qualified for the national tournament when Daniel Page, now a senior, competed at 125 pounds. Van Kley is looking for his wrestlers to take that next step this season and have someone earn a distinction that a Dutch wrestler hasn’t earned since 2004—all-American.
“We’ve made some good headway the last six or seven years,” said Van Kley. “I’ve been really pleased with the steady progress we’ve shown. We’ve competed in nationals the last four years, so that’s a streak we want to keep going. But also, we’d like to not just qualify someone for nationals, but also have an all-American at nationals.”
Central continues to bring in a steady flow of talent in each freshman class. This year’s class features nine wrestlers from across the country. Three are from Iowa, but the others come from Arizona, California, Illinois, Kansas, and Washington. Several of the rookies were high school state qualifiers and some were state placewinners. Van Kley is excited about the possibilities these newcomers present.
“We’re just excited overall about the work ethic of our freshmen,” he said. “I think it’s a very hard-working, committed group. We’re excited to see how the group competes in this upcoming season, but they’ve been pretty dialed in this fall.”
This team also features a fair share of experience, with six returning starters. Overall, 15 letterwinners from last year’s team return as well as 12 non-letterwinniners. The 36-member team is split between youth and experience but the team united is by one thing, according to Van Kley: commitment.
“So much of the huge improvements in the program over the last half dozen or so years is a direct credit to the commitment to the guys in the program,” Van Kley said.
Page is the clear leader at 125 pounds The senior was named the Most Valuable Performer on the Dutch roster for the second consecutive season. A 29-7 record last season included three first-place tournament finishes. He capped his season by earning his second NCAA tournament berth with a second-place finish in the Central Regional.
The Dutch also have depth at 125.
“We think this is one of our stronger weights,” Van Kley said. “Page is a three-year starter and a two-time national qualifier. We also feel really good about Abe Fernandez. He’s a senior that’s won some big matches and stepped in and done a really good job there. We have a lot of confidence there in our depth.”
Fernandez, a senior from Tampa, Florida, went 13-11 last year in earning his second varsity letter. He highlighted his season with a second-place finish at the Central Invitational.
Sophomore Jacob Hergott went 7-6 as a freshman. Van Kley is also excited about the arrival of C.J. Pestano, a freshman from Torrance, California
Junior Aaron Anderson turned in a 21-10 record in his first full year as the starter at 133 pounds, after taking over midway through his freshman year. He won tournament crowns at the Knox (Ill.) and Central Invitationals as well finishing second at the M.S.O.E. Invitational in Milwaukee.
“Aaron Anderson is a guy who is a two-year starter, and will be the favorite at 133 pounds,” Van Kley said. “He has won big matches and has high goals for this upcoming season.”
A.J. Pestano (3-4), the older brother of C.J., will also be a top competitor at 133 pounds for the Dutch.
Sophomores Jackson Agey (2-6) and Mitchell Knock (0-6), join two freshmen, Jacob Challen, from Jefferson, and Gabriel Cobb, from Phoenix, Arizona to fill out the weight class.
Experience is limited at 141 pounds. Sophomore Jordan Richardson is the lone returner after posting a 1-6 record in 2013-14.
“A couple of younger guys are going to have a shot to compete for this spot,” Van Kley said. “Jordan Richardson is a guy who stuck around this past summer and has made some significant improvements.”
Freshmen Jahleel Vester, from Oak Harbor, Washington, and Elden Esterly, from Phoenix, Arizona looks to push for time as well. Vester finished third at 138 pounds as a high school senior in the Washington state finals.
Ryan Vandall came on strong during his freshman campaign at 157 pounds, finishing at 24-14. He has dropped down to 149 pounds in an effort to fill an open spot.
“Ryan really had a solid year last year, he was a 20-match winner at 157,” Van Kley said. “He has made the adjustment to go down to 149 this year. We see him as competing for that spot.”
His opposition includes freshman Haratio Austin of Springfeld, Illinois. He took fourth place at the Illinois State Championships last season.
“He’s a guy who has a lot of potential and I think will compete for that spot also,” Van Kley said.
Garrett Blythe, a freshman from Williamsburg, is also competing at 149.
With Vandall’s change in weight class, sophomore Mike O’Connor is left as the lone contender at 157 pounds. O’Connor posted a 7-7 record during his rookie season and he’s currently the only Dutch wrestler listed at 157.
“Mike is a guy with a lot of potential,” Van Kley said. “He’s a very good mat wrestler. He’s also a guy who we think is going to get us a lot of bonus points.”
The 165-pound class is a little bit of an unknown entering the season. Zach Moss spent time at that weight last season but has jumped up a weight class to 174.
Meanwhile, senior Dillon Anderson (6-11) wants to move down from 174 to vie for that slot at 165.
“He’s working on getting his weight down and we hope to seem see him there eventually,” Van Kley said. “We hope to get him down there soon and get him comfortable at that weight.”
Freshman Cory McCleary of Linwood, Kansas will also compete. McCleary is also a member of the Dutch football team, however, and will get a late start.
Four wrestlers return at 174, led by senior three-time letterwinner Sam Apland. Apland was 13-19 and placed fourth at the M.S.O.E. (Wis.) Invitational. Senior Jesse Blauw (0-6), junior Tyler Booth (4-6), and sophomore Zach Moss (10-13) will provide additional depth and experience
Apland and Moss open as the favorites.
“This is a weight where we think we could be pretty strong,” said Van Kley. “Sam and Zach both made significant commitment in their training habits over the summer. Both stuck around Pella and really put a lot of time and effort in and I think both of those guys will have some varsity opportunities this year. We hope to make it a strong weight for us.”
The Dutch also welcome freshman Josh Johnson of Ankeny at 174.
There is no clear cut favorite at 184. Sophomore Dustin Thiebault is the only returning wrestler with experience at that weight, with a 3-5 mark. Junior Trent Baker (3-3) is dropping all the way down from 285 while sophomore Thomas Slaney of Pekin, Iowa is in his first full season of collegiate wrestling.
“All of those guys will get some opportunities to compete there,” said Van Kley. “That’s a spot where we’ve got to find who our guy is and that’ll be a little bit of a work in progress.”
There’s a logjam at 197 pounds.
The incumbent is senior Tyler Lowy, who had his best season last year. Lowy finished 30-5, including a pair of tournament titles at the Knox (Ill.) and Central Invitationals.
“Tyler Lowy had a very good year last year,” Van Kley said. “He was one match from qualifying for the national tournament.”
But he must hold off sophomore Matt Seabold (2-1), a transfer from South Dakota State with sparkling credentials from Burlington High School He joined the squad during spring semester last year and saw limited action.
“I’m excited about what Matt Seabold can do,” Van Kley said. “Transferring at semester gave him a chance to get his feet wet a little bit and he really has high expectations.”
Ben Melisi (4-9) got significant mat time last year at 184 and has moved up a weight class. Juniors Alex Dean (3-12) and Jay Pike also could contribute at either here or 285.
Van Kley is not worried about the stockpile of talent at the second-heaviest weight class.
“We think 197 is the answer, not the problem,” Van Kley said. “We think we’ve got some really good depth there. We also have some really good experience there. It’s a matter of seeing where everyone fits weight-wise between 184 and 197. But it looks to be a really strong weight for us.”
A pair of sophomores, Jaime Miranda and Edwin Etienne, handled the majority of the action at 285 pounds last year, but as many as four other contenders are vying for time as well.
Miranda, was the starter much of the season, going 13-11 while placing top three at three tournaments. Etienne, also a Dutch defensive lineman, came on strong at the end of the year and went 5-8, gaining valuable experience in the NCAA Central Regional meet.
“It’s a weight where we have some really good depth, some really good younger guys,” Van Kley said. “Jaime wrestled a lot of varsity matches, and Edwin did also.”
A former Dutch football player, Jay Pike, is now focused on wrestling and Van Kley expects that to help him competitively.
“Jay Pike is a guy who this year, for the first year, is committed fully to wrestling, ,” Van Kley said. “He is a guy that sooner rather than later will be in the mix competing for that spot.”
Fellow sophomores Isaiah Smith (3-6) and Ben Miller (1-4) are also possibilities.
A trio of veteran coaches and one new assistant will join Van Kley on the Dutch coaching staff.
Former Central all-American Matt Diehl enters his 24th year serving the Central wrestling program, now as a volunteer assistant. Diehl led the program from 1996-2004.
Former Cornell College all-American and Iowa Conference champion Kevin Donahue returns for a fourth season while Wartburg grad Bob Kuennen is back for a sixth season. Joseph Atwell, a 2013 Central grad, joins the staff for his first season as an assistant.
“I can’t thank enough the assistants that I’ve got,” Van Kley said. “We’ve really had a lot of continuity with our staff. I just feel like I’ve got a phenomenal group of assistants that are really committed to the program. We’d never be where we are at without them.”
The 2014-15 schedule for Central wrestling has noticeable differences from last season. Gone are trips to Indiana and Florida during winter break. They are replaced by a trio of new invitationals and a new dual opponent.
The Dutch will again attend pre-Christmas tournaments at Knox (Ill.), Iowa State, Milwaukee School of Engineering and Augsburg (Minn.). The Dutch have also added three new tournaments in Iowa to increase opportunities for more wrestlers. A December 6 tournament at Buena Vista and a February 14 open in Dubuque will be important experiences for the younger Dutch wrestlers.
“We’re picking up a few more tournaments in the area to get some more mat time,” Van Kley said “We have a fairly young team and we looked at that as a better schedule for our total time than doing a holiday trip to Florida this year.”
Also added to this year’s slate is the Matman Invitational at Cornell College January 17. Van Kley refers to it as a “top-quality tournament,” as last year it featured six of the top seven teams in the NCAA Central Regional. And the Central College Under Armour Invitational is Jan. 10. 11 teams are slated to make the trip to Pella, including Division II Truman State (Mo.)
The dual schedule is much the same as it was last year. The Dutch will face all seven of its Iowa Conference rivals in the dual season once again, starting with Coe making the trip to Pella on November 20. Central will host Luther and make trips Simpson and Loras as well. The Dutch take on the rest of its Iowa Conference foes in Wartburg for the Iowa Conference Duals on January 24, where they will see Buena Vista and Dubuque, as well as the host Wartburg.
In non-conference dual action, Central will play host to St. Olaf (Minn.) and William Penn. The Dutch also make a trip to Galesburg, Illinois for a double dual with Augustana (Ill.) and Knox (Ill.) New to the dual schedule this year is an upstart program, the University of the Ozarks (Ark.), who will square off with the Dutch January 13.
“University of the Ozarks is a new program out of Arkansas that former Central assistant coach Jason Zastrow started,” Van Kley said. “It wasn’t just a favor to a friend, they’ll be in our regional this year, so they’re a team we’ll want to see.”
Division III wrestling is now in the third year of its revamped regional tournament model. Qualifying for the national meet is held at six regionals and the top three finishers in each weight class advance to the NCAA Division III championships—a field of 180.
Central will venture to Dubuque for the 13-team meet, which includes the eight Iowa Conference squads.. The Dutch will see all 12 regional opponents throughout the season, including 10 in dual action. Central will see Cornell at the Matman Invitational at Mount Vernon and Huntingdon (Ala.), also in its first season, will be in Pella for the Central Invitational.
“I think (the regional format) is as good as they can make it,” Van Kley said. “Our regional is fiercely competitive with who we have in it. I think that’s the way it should be. If you’re going to qualify for the national tournament you’ve got to beat some quality opponents, and that’s what you see in our regional. That’s something we embrace as a coaching staff and I think also the guys on our team embrace it.”