Seven national top-10 team finishes
It isn’t supposed to be easy.
That’s what sixth-year coach Eric Van Kley is reminding the Central College wrestling squad as the Dutch continue to climb in their resurgence to national prominence.
After two winless seasons, Van Kley has guided the Dutch to three consecutive 10-win dual campaigns. Last year’s 13 victories were the most in 18 years and the Dutch inched up to sixth place in the rugged Iowa Conference, their best showing in 15 years. Central also ended a six-year drought at the NCAA Division III championships, sending individuals to the last two meets.
In 2012-13, the Dutch are striving for more. The squad already has a head start with a No. 29 ranking in the National Wrestling Coaches Association preseason poll. It’s the first time in 20 years Central has been ranked.
“The next step is to have an all-American at the national tournament and to still be a nationally ranked team by the end of the season,” Van Kley said.
Central is fueled by one of the program’s deepest rosters ever. With more than 40 wrestlers for the third straight year, the Dutch return 22 letterwinners and five starters.
“We definitely have the most experience we’ve had since I’ve been here and we have wrestlers with starting experience at all of the weights,” Van Kley said. “The wrestlers know the expectations and routines of how we do things, which really helps the learning curve of the younger guys.”
Central is no stranger to wrestling success. The Dutch have 10 top-20 national finishes, including a second-place showing in 1983-84, four NCAA individual titles and four Iowa Conference team championships. Central wrestlers have received all-America honors 42 times.
Making a name once again at the national scene won’t be a walk in the park.
“I think the wrestlers understand that we want to do things we haven’t done in a while and they realize there’s a process that goes with it,” Van Kley said. “We have to do the work that comes with it. Getting there doesn’t magically happen.”
Sophomore Daniel Page was an immediate contributor in his rookie campaign, compiling a 22-17 record. He finished sixth at the Iowa Conference tournament after placing third in the silver division of the Augsburg (Minn.) Invitational, fifth at the Knox (Ill.) Invitational and sixth at the MSOE (Wis.) Invitational. Page received the team’s Outstanding Freshman Award.
“Daniel beat several nationally ranked opponents last year,” Van Kley said. “He was a solid performer for us and held his spot the entire year. He gets us started off on a good note, is mentally tough and a fierce competitor. He’ll definitely be our guy at 125.”
Central has options at 133. Two-time letterwinner Bryan Connolly compiled an 8-8 record as a junior last year and placed third at the Knox (Ill.) tournament at 125 pounds. Senior Jacob Eischeid studied abroad last year but was 4-4 at 125 pounds in 2010-11. Freshman Aaron Anderson of Clarion-Goldfield is also in the mix.
“All three of those wrestlers will get some experience throughout the year,” Van Kley said. “They each have an upside and are strong offensively. None of them have a lot of experience and you can count on them to get better.”
Freshman Shane LeBlanc of North Attleboro, Mass., will get looks at 125 and 133.
Two-time letterwinner TJ Peretti was 19-11 as a sophomore. He received the squad’s Most Improved Performer Award last year and placed fifth in the league tournament. He was also second in the silver bracket of the Augsburg (Minn.) Invitational, third at the Central Invitational and sixth at the MSOE (Wis.) Invitational.
“TJ definitely took it up a notch last year and finished with a strong conference placing,” Van Kley said. “He has high expectations this year. He wants to wrestle at the national tournament and he’s capable of that. He’s solid on the mat, wrestling well from all three positions.”
Freshman Zach May of Mount Pleasant will also contribute.
“Zach has a tremendous work ethic and it will be fun to see him develop,” Van Kley said.
Central has depth at 149 but sophomore Ryan Davis is the frontrunner after posting a 13-7 mark last year. He finished third at the MSOE (Wis.) tournament and fourth at the Knox (Ill.) tournament.
“Ryan has a tremendous work ethic and had a great offseason,” Van Kley said.
Senior Chris Hallinan saw some action last year, finishing with a 3-4 record.
“Chris has been working hard and had good momentum late in the year,” Van Kley said.
Two-time letterwinner Carlos Hernandez could also contend.
“He really stepped in and helped us out last year,” Van Kley said.
Joseph Atwell is the favorite at 157 after splashing into the national scene last year. Atwell earned an automatic bid the NCAA tourney with a third-place finish at the league tournament. He muscled his way through the bottom half of the bracket, knocking off a nationally ranked opponent and avenging a first-round loss.
“His goal is to be an all-American this year,” Van Kley said. “He’s continued to improve and did great work in the offseason. He’ll probably be nationally ranked this year.”
Atwell received the team’s Most Valuable Performer Award and posted a 24-11 record. He placed second at the Knox (Ill.) and MSOE (Wis.) invitationals and sixth in the top division of the Augsburg (Minn.) Invitational. The three-year letterwinner has a 68-41 career mark.
“Joseph’s definitely one of the leaders of the team and sets a great example,” Van Kley said.
Freshman Tyler Booth of Lindenhurst, Ill., will push Atwell.
“He’s a talented freshman and has some great background experience,” Van Kley said. “He’ll be very solid.”
Van Kley said 165 is anybody’s guess.
“We’ll probably see a few faces throughout the year but we like the competition we’re seeing at this weight,” he said.
Senior letterwinner Colten Moore was 19-10 last year, with two third-place showings at the MSOE (Wis.) and Central tournaments and a seventh-place finish in the top bracket of the Augsburg (Minn.) tournament.
“Colten has done good things for us,” Van Kley said.
Freshmen Mikah Fellows of Fort Myers, Fla., and Jon Heffner of Lehigh Acres, Fla., both graduated from Riverdale High School and will likely be part of the rotation.
“We’re pleased with what we’ve seen out of them so far,” Van Kley said.
The deepest weight for the Dutch is 174.
Senior Ivan Gaeta is back after studying abroad last year. The three-time letterwinner has a 23-25 career mark.
“Ivan is looking good after a year off,” Van Kley said.
Sam Apland posted a 9-8 mark last year with sixth- and seventh-place showings at the MSOE (Wis.) and Augsburg (Minn.) tournaments, respectively.
“He’s a very talented sophomore who had a good freshman campaign,” Van Kley said. “He’s worked hard in the offseason.”
Van Kley is also eyeing freshman Dusty Fellows of Fort Myers, Fla.
“He’ll get some varsity experience throughout the year,” Van Kley said.
Sophomore Dillon Anderson will also get a look. He was 7-7 at 165 pounds last year and placed second in his division at the Augsburg (Minn.) Invitational.
“Dillon’s an extremely hard worker and will get some opportunities,” Van Kley said.
Sophomore Tyler Lowy is coming off a promising freshman campaign, posting a 19-13 record, finishing seventh in the conference tournament with fifth-place showings in his division at the Augsburg (Minn.) and Knox (Ill.) tournaments.
“He’s likely to start again,” Van Kley said. “He had a great freshman season and is really growing into his body as a college wrestler. He has a real passion to improve and has a good mind for the sport.”
Lowy doesn’t fit the traditional wrestling frame at 6-foot-5, which can be an advantage.
“Being so tall he’s very dangerous,” Van Kley said. “He can put people on their back and look for pins from almost everywhere.”
Senior Greg Barner is in the mix at 184 and 197. The two-time letterwinner was 13-9 at 184 pounds last year, with third-place finishes at the Knox (Ill.) and MSOE (Wis.) tournaments.
“He really shows a lot of promise and will compete at both spots,” Van Kley said.
Three-time letterwinner Theron Stewart is aiming for big things at 197. He compiled a 17-8 mark last year, finishing third at the Central tournament, fourth at the MSOE (Wis.) tournament and fifth at the Knox (Ill.) tournament. Stewart was recognized as the hardest worker with the Lawrence Award last year and was an NWCA Scholar-All-American. He has a 51-35 career record.
“We definitely expect big things out of Theron this year,” Van Kley said. “He had a great offseason and is much stronger and mature at that weight.”
Three-time letterwinner Jake Crawford is the heavyweight favorite. He was 21-11 and finished seventh in the league tournament after placing second at the MSOE (Wis.) Invitational and third in the silver division of the Augsburg (Minn.) Invitational.
“Jake totally transformed over the offseason,” Van Kley said. “He probably put in the best offseason of anyone I’ve been around, doing what he needed to do to make himself the best he could be. Jake has potential to be wrestling at the national tournament in March.”
Former all-American Kevin Donahue is in his second season with the Dutch. Competing at 141 pounds for Cornell College, Donahue was a three-time all-American, placing fourth at the NCAA championships twice after finishing seventh in 2008-09. Donahue was a four-time conference placewinner and two-time league champion. He compiled a 109-41 career record.
Bob Kuennen is in his fourth season as assistant coach. The Wartburg College graduate was an NWCA Scholar-All American. Kuennen also joined Central as educational talent search coordinator this year.
Volunteer assistant Matt Diehl is in his 22nd season. He served as head coach from 1996-2004 and was an all-American for the Dutch at 118 pounds. He won the league title and helped the Dutch place eighth in the nation in 1987.
“I couldn’t be happier with the staff,” Van Kley said. “It’s the most continuity we’ve had for a while.”
Trevor Dieleman provides valuable support as strength and conditioning coach. A 2006 Central graduate, Dieleman is a former Division I strength assistant.
“He’s a great addition,” Van Kley said.
A demanding slate preps the Dutch well, as Central tackles the always-powerful Iowa Conference. Defending champion Wartburg College remains the favorite with national third-place finisher Coe College as a strong contender, along with Luther College and the University of Dubuque.
“The conference is as tough as ever and could easily have three or four teams in the top 10 of the country this year,” Van Kley said. “But we take pride in the fact that we’re in the toughest conference in the country and it’s something our wrestlers are excited about.”
Central will also face rigorous competition at the Augsburg (Minn.) Invitational and the Wabash (Ind.) Max Servies Duals. The season is highlighted with a winter-break trip to Fort Myers, Fla., for the Gulf Coast Duals.
NCAA qualifying format
A new selection process will be used for the 2013 NCAA Division III tournament. Previously, the 170-wrestler field was determined by seven automatic qualifying tournaments at the conference level and two regional tournaments. The top three individuals in each weight class were determined at the Iowa Conference tournament and five wild cards were chosen at-large after the tournament. This year, the format streamlines to a six-site regional system with the top three wrestlers in each weight class advancing to fill a field of 180 wrestlers.
Central contends in the Central Region March 2, which will be hosted by Loras College at the Five Flags Center in Dubuque. The region includes the eight conference schools as well as Augustana College (Ill.), Knox College (Ill.) and former league member Cornell College. Those that advance from the regional will compete at the championships March 15-16, hosted by Coe College at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena.
“It’ll be very challenging but it makes it pretty simple,” Van Kley said. “You’ve got to be in the top three at the regional. There are no wild cards. You control your own destiny.”