PELLA— Coming off the program’s best season in over 20 years, the Central College wrestling team is poised to take the next step and make a splash on a national level.
Last year Central finished in the top half of the Iowa Conference for the first time since 1995. With seven starters returning bolstered by a stellar recruiting class, ninth-year coach Eric Van Kley, looks for this year’s team to reach new heights.
“I think our guys really embrace the challenge of having had a special season last year,” he said. “But last year was exactly that, last year. With Central College wrestling, our expectations continue to grow. We can wrestle in the postseason, finish in the top of the conference and be competitive nationally. We’ve got the athletes and a coaching staff that are up for the challenge.”
Last year was the fifth consecutive in which a Central wrestler qualified for the NCAA Division III Championships. The Dutch reached another milestone in Van Kley’s rebuilding efforts last year as Daniel Page, a 125-pounder and 197-pound Matt Seabold both earned All-America status. Their performances helped the Dutch finish in a tie for 29th place in Division III, the best for Central since 2003.
“The next step for this program is to have success at the national level on a consistent basis,” Van Kley said. “We did it last year and now it’s a matter of doing it again and hopefully doing it better.”
The Iowa Conference is as strong as ever, with Wartburg, Coe and Luther ranked in the top 10 in the preseason National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) poll. Central, as well as Loras and Dubuque, also spent time in the rankings a year ago, while Buena Vista and Simpson are also trending upwards.
“Our conference is without question the strongest in the country,” Van Kley said. “There’s no place we’d rather be for that competition. Every single night in the Iowa Conference you’re going against a team that has guys capable of wrestling at a very high level.”
Central also set program records off the mat a year ago when four Dutch wrestlers were honored by the NWCA as Scholar All-Americans.
“I’m equally proud if not even more proud of having four Scholar All-Americans,” Van Kley said. “That’s something we’d like to attain or improve upon this year.”
Fifteen new wrestlers join the program this season, including 12 freshmen and three transfers. The newcomers hail from Iowa, Illinois, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.
“I’ve been pleased with the commitment level that we’ve seen from them in workouts,” Van Kley said. “Now it’s just matter a matter of doing the little things on a daily basis and setting themselves up for success.”
Graduation hit the Dutch hard at 125 pounds as they lost Page, a four-year starter. Page, became the 11th member of the 100-win club at Central last season, and is now an assistant coach for the Dutch.
Vying to replace Page will be brothers AJ and CJ Pestano. AJ, a senior, went 9-10 at 133 pounds last season, while sophomore CJ was 20-7 at 125 pounds.
“Both of them got a lot of varsity experience last year and had a lot of success,” Van Kley said. “CJ was a Scholar All-American. AJ stepped in several times at 133 and had one of our biggest wins of the year against Loras.”
A healthy senior Aaron Anderson will look to improve upon his injury-riddled 2014-15 season. In limited action, he went 11-6 including a second-place finish at the Milwaukee School of Engineering Invitational.
“Aaron’s a three-year starter and tremendous leader as a captain.” Van Kley said. “He really sets the tone and excels on the mat in the classroom and socially.”
A trio of freshmen, Tristan Clark of Monroe, Devin Dilley of Springfield, Ill. and Chase Petty of Pella provide additional depth.
Five returners are vying for the hotly contested 141-pound slot in the Dutch lineup.
“That is going to be a weight that’s up for grabs,” Van Kley said. “We think that’s a really good thing.”
Several different wrestlers rotated at the spot last year before sophomore Jahleel Vester (14-19) finished the season out as the starter. Junior Mitchell Knock (3-8), and sophomores Gabriel Cobb (9-8), Jake Challen (6-11) and Preston Adams (0-12) are also in the race.
“That’s a spot that we need to be stronger at this year than we were last year,” Van Kley said. “It may be a little bit by committee on how we do it. We’ve got some returners who gained some valuable experience last year. We’re going to need some guys to step up and grab hold of that weight.”
With last year’s starter, Ryan Vandall, moving up to 165 pounds, 149 pounds is lacking experience. Sophomore Elden Esterly (2-12) is the lone returner, while freshmen Jeremy Vester of Oak Harbor, Wash., Jordan Challen of Jefferson and Tanner Hocker of Fort Madison show promise.
“We’re potentially going to be young there, but I think young and talented,” Van Kley said. “The freshmen had a lot of success at the high school level, but they’re starting over in college. Some of those guys are going to have to grow up in a hurry. We’re going to have pretty high expectations.”
Mike O’Connor went 18-13, including 12 wins by fall, at 157 pounds last year.
“He had some really big wins for us last year,” Van Kley said. “The thing about Mike is that he’s far and away the best guy on our team from the top position. He’s got high expectations and he’s put in a lot of work to continue improving.”
Freshman Lane Rummelhart from Guthrie Center is also competing at 157.
Two starters from last year will battle for one spot this year. Cory McCleary went 9-13 as a freshman at 165 last year, but will have to fend off Vandall, who was 21-10 at 149 pounds last year.
“That’s another weight where we think there’s some really positive competition,” Van Kley said. “Both Vandall and McCleary had some really positive showings last year and both were a bit disappointed by how they did at the regional. We’re hoping another year of experience under their belts may produce some good results.”
A quartet of freshmen contenders include Jamie Day of Cedar Rapids, Nathan Fritz of Sigourney, Eddie Ginnan of Homer Glen, Ill. and Jeremy Scheuerman of Jefferson, will be in the mix as well.
Though he spent the majority of the year at 174 pounds junior Zach Moss may have had his best performance at 184 pounds last season. An injury created an opening for the NCAA Division IIII regional tournament and Moss (19-13) took advantage by finishing fifth.
“Zach’s pretty special,” Van Kley said. “There’s not a lot of guys that can move up a weight class for the final event of the year and do what he did by placing at the regional tournament.”
Moss will return to his normal weight of 174 pounds this season with his loftier expectations.
“We think he’s even better this year than he was last year,” Van Kley said. “Zach has very high goals of wrestling at nationals. He just needs to get that next level of confidence so he can beat the best guys in the country at 174 pounds.”
With the graduation of four-year starter Tyler Lowy, someone new will step in at 184 pounds. Junior Steven Candley, an Arlington, Texas native and Ellsworth Community College transfer and freshman Austin Laabs of Guthrie Center are the favorites.
“Anytime you lose a guy that had the success that Lowy had, you’re not going to replace him easily,” Van Kley said. “Candley is a guy that has had some success at the junior college level. Laabs was a high school state finalist last year. We still think it can be a strong weight for us as they get more mat time and experience.”
Seabold returns at 197 pounds and after an impressive 24-8 campaign, He is looking to improve upon his eighth-place NCAA finish. Seabold opens the season ranked No. 4 according to the NWCA poll.
“Matt had a really successful year last year,” Van Kley said. “But this is a new year and he has even higher goals for this season. He shows a tremendous amount of leadership and puts the work in every day to make it work. We look at 197 as an exceptionally strong weight and we’re excited to put a returning All-American out there.”
Candley and freshman Christopther Murnio of Homer Glen, Ill. may also figure at 197.
The competition for the starting nod at 285 pounds was back and forth throughout last season. Senior Jay Pike (17-16) finally edged junior Jaime Miranda (17-12) in order to get the nod at the regional meet. The competition resumes this year.
“Both of them really feed off of the competition and are tremendous teammates in pushing each other,” Van Kley said. “We look at it is a strong weight for us regardless of who is wrestling.”
Seniors Alex Dean and Francisco Ruiz Jr. have seen little mat time but are important to the team, Van Kley said. “
Both of them have been around the program and shown good leadership,” he said. “They’ll both have opportunities to step in this year. We’re really proud and excited of the seniors we have this year.”
Murino is also a possibility at 285.
The Dutch coaching staff features veteran coaches and some recent Central graduates.
Van Kley is joined by former Central All-American Matt Diehl, entering his 25th season serving the program, including eight years as head from 1996-2004. Kevin Donahue, an All-American and conference champion at Cornell College is back for a fifth season. Wartburg grad Bob Kuennen enters his seventh season.
The coaching staff also features 2013 Central grad Joseph Atwell and 2015 grad Daniel Page. Both Atwell and Page wrestled in the program under Van Kley and each made at least one trip to the national meet.
“It really helps having two guys that have been through the program and know the expectations of the program,” Van Kley said.
“I feel really blessed and fortunate to have each of the guys on our staff. At the core of who they are, they really care a lot about young people and making them better on and off the mat.”
The 2015-16 schedule sees the Dutch match up with some familiar foes and a few new faces.
The biggest difference from last year’s schedule is an appearance at the season-opening Wis.-Platteville Invitational November 7.
“I think it’s going to be a great event,” Van Kley said. “Platteville had three national qualifiers last year and we’re going to see some other good teams from our region there.”
The rest of the first semester is highlighted by Minnesota trips for the Auggie-Adidas Open in Minneapolis November 21 and a dual with St. Olaf at Northfield December 10. Central opens the conference campaign with a dual at Coe November 19.
Central will host seven duals after the holidays and the Central College Under Armour Invitational on January 9.
“When people see our schedule, they’re going to see a lot of home events during the second semester,” Van Kley said. “We think the extra home events will be fun both for our guys and our fans.”
The Dutch will host one of two Iowa Conference Dual tournaments when Wartburg, Dubuque, Buena Vista visit Pella January 23 for one of the most important dates of the league season.
“It’s going to be huge,” Van Kley said. “We’re going to host some of the best teams from not only our region, but also some of the best teams in the country. We’re very excited to be hosting it.”
The NCAA Division III Central Regional returns to Dubuque February 28 as wrestlers from across the region vie for spots at the national meet. The lone newcomer to the region, Millikin (Ill.), is bringing back its wrestling program after six-year absence. All eight Iowa Conference schools, as well as Cornell, Augustana (Ill.), Ozarks (Ark.), and Huntingdon (Ala.) return to the field this year.
“Last year our regional had five more All-Americans than the next closest regional,” Van Kley said. “It’s definitely the toughest regional and our guys embrace that. They know that if they have success at regional, they’ll have a lot of confidence to be successful nationally.
Any Dutch wrestlers who qualify for the national meet will have the luxury of a short trip as it is slated to take place in Cedar Rapids, March 11-12.
Story provided by Joe Flaherty