PELLA— Returning starters at seven of 10 weight classes, the Central College wrestling team is locked in to continue its climb in the NCAA Division III standings.
Of the team’s seven starters returning, five were top-eight finishers at the NCAA Division III Lower Midwest Regional meet in March. Both of the team’s national qualifiers from last year have graduated but 141-pounder Daniel Radcliffe (senior, Lockport, Ill., Lockport Township HS) and 174-pounder Nathan Fritz (senior, Sigourney) have national meet experience in prior seasons.
“I think we have as much firepower in our lineup this year as we’ve have ever had in my time here,” coach Eric Van Kley said. “We’ve got seven returners from a team that finished third at regionals last year, so we’ve got guys who can do it. We’ve just got to prove it and do it when it counts.”
Central had a dual record of 13-3 in 2018-19, including a 5-3 mark in league duals for a fourth-place finish in arguably the best Division III wrestling conference. A third-place effort at the regional meet preceded a 33rd-place finish at the NCAA Division III Championships, after being ranked as high as No. 12 during the season.
For the last five years, Central has had an All-American at its lightest weight. Assistant coach Daniel Page started the run as a senior in 2015 before C.J. Pestano (2016-18) and Cam Timok (2019) extended the streak.
There are options aplenty to fill the spot this year. Chase Poston (sophomore, Olympia, Wash.) was 12-11 last year and Carlos Posas Jr. (junior, Madera, Calif., South HS) was 7-10.
“Both of those guys had some opportunities last year,” Van Kley said. “They’ve been working hard in the offseason and will be ready to go.
Antonio Lomelli (sophomore, Oxnard, Calif., Pacifica) was injured most of last season while Matthew Masatani (junior Torrance, Calif.) is studying abroad this fall but could factor in upon his return.
A transfer from Highline Community College (Wash.), Shandon Akeo (junior, Honolulu, Hawaii, Kapolei HS), qualified for the NJCAA Championships and brings excitement at 133 pounds.
“He had a lot of success in his first two years,” Van Kley said. “He’s mature and has put in a good fall thus far. I think he has pretty high aspirations.”
Eric Santana (sophomore, Palm Desert, Calif.) is also among Central’s five returners studying abroad this fall. Santana and Connor Sexton (sophomore, Indianola) spent time at both 125 pounds and 133 pounds last season and give Van Kley additional options. Santana was 13-8 last season, Sexton was 3-15.
Three-time all-conference honoree Daniel Radcliffe (senior, Lockport, Ill., Lockport Township HS) is 28 wins short of joining the 100-victory club. He went 26-7 as a junior at 141 pounds. A national qualifier as a freshman, Radcliffe is aiming for his second trip to the NCAA meet.
“He’s gotten better every single year,” Van Kley said. “He’s had some brutally tough regional tournaments and lost to two All-Americans last year. He’s looking even better this year so we feel really strong at that weight and are excited for him to have a terrific season.”
At least four freshmen are training at 141 pounds and will provide depth.
Bursting onto the scene as a freshman, Rob Areyano (sophomore, Selma, Calif.) led the Dutch with 28 individual victories at 149 pounds. He recorded 14 pins and three technical falls and won titles at the MSOE Invitational and Pointer Open
“He really secured that spot early year,” Van Kley said. “It’s rarity for a freshman to start the whole year, especially, a middleweight like that. He’s stronger and more mature this year. I know he really wants to hit his goal of making the national tournament this year.”
Junior Noah Gregorovic (junior, Peoria, Ariz., Liberty HS) was 7-14 in 2018-19 and Matthew Pool (junior, Tucson, Ariz., Magnet HS) also returns to the team after missing all of last season. Pool went 16-17 in previous seasons. Sophomore Winton Neal (junior, Camdenton, Mo.) also is abroad this fall and will return after Christmas.
“Noah has looked good this fall and Matthew had a great summer.” Van Kley said. “We’re excited to see these guys develop. They’ll get some shots this year.”
Senior Collin Groleau (Peru, Ill., LaSalle-Peru Township HS) started most of last season at 157 pounds, where he posted a 21-10 mark. He could bump up to 165 pounds this year but that is undecided at this point.
“We’re still figuring that out,” Van Kley said. “Once we make that decision, we’ll work the other spot around him. These weight classes will evolve as the year goes on.”
At 157 pounds, juniors Jackson Gissel (Gilbert, Ariz., Williams Field HS) and Colin Baldwin (San Diego Calif, Mira Mesa HS) and several freshmen will get plenty of tournament matches. Gissel was 9-15 last year and Baldwin was 8-8.
Junior Chance Benadum (Dos Palos, Calif.,) was 13-9 as a sophomore and could figure at 165 or 174. Senior Ben Callison (Gilbert, Ariz., Mountain View) has had injury issues throughout his career and will look to stay healthy and compete for matches at 165.
A three-year starter, Fritz missed the national meet last year by one spot at 174 pounds after qualifying in 2018. He fell in the third-place match at the regional championships. He was 23-7 with a pair of tournament titles. While he is the incumbent at 174, he will likely start the season at 184.
“He’s been a special young man for us as far his leadership on and off the mat,” Van Kley said. “He’s been a very reliable warrior wherever we’ve put him throughout his career. He’s looking for a special senior year.
Senior Andrew McCracken (Des Peres, Mo., Kirkwood HS) and junior Jordan Sheldahl (Yuma, Ariz., Gila Ridge HS) are in reserve roles after going 8-15 and 1-9 last year, respectively.
Griffen McBride (junior, Pleasantville) was 26-5 in his first season at 184 pounds and is considered a contender in the d3wrestle.com preseason rankings. He bagged three tournament titles and finished in the top three of two others.
“We feel like he’s significantly better this year,” Van Kley said. “He has goals and aspirations for the national tournament this year and we’re going to support him in any way that we can.”
Senior Tanner Zimmerman (Indianola) went 3-1 after missing the fall semester while studying abroad and sophomore Cooper Stigsell (sophomore, Litchfield Park, Ariz., Verrado HS) debuted with a 9-9 mark last year.
Recording a team-high 15 pins in 2018-19, Gavin Babcock (junior, Altoona, Southeast Polk HS) finished with a 23-6 record at 197 pounds.
“The big thing with Gavin is his ability to pick up bonus points,” Van Kley said. “The key to making the national tournament for Gavin is making that next step and being able to win that one-point match when you don’t get the pin.”
Junior Mike Escobedo (Tucson, Ariz.) missed all of last season with an injury and is eager to return to competition. Sophomore Chase Bellon (Knoxville) joined the program last spring and is prepping for his first full season. Christian Messick (senior, Garden Grove, Calif.) is also studying abroad and will return in January.
Arguably the deepest weight class on the roster, Duncan Lee (senior, Newton) is the incumbent starter at 285 pounds. A 19-10 record last year included nine falls.
Samuel Zook (sophomore, Oak Harbor, Wash.) is also ready to take a big step forward after a 12-5 debut season.
“We like both of those guys a lot,” Van Kley said. “I think they are the blueprint for our program. The competition in the room between them makes both of them better. They will both get an opportunity to make this a strong weight for us this year.”
Senior Holden Miller (Yelm, Wash.) and junior Hunter Ruth (junior, Scranton, Greene County HS) give Van Kley two additional veteran options. Miller was 2-8 last year and Ruth was 6-8.
Before the calendar flips to 2020, Central will take on two dual tournaments, four invitationals and four dual events.
Last year, Central made its debut at the Scotty Wood Duals, hosted by Muhlenberg College (Pa.), and picked up five victories. The team is headed back there on November 23 and will also go to the Adrian College (Mich.) Duals for the first time on November 16.
“Our guys have a lot of fun at the out-of-region dual tournaments,” Van Kley said. “It’s a fun experience to travel and see some teams we don’t normally see.”
The Dutch will once again host tournaments on January 11 (Under Armour Invitational) and Feburary 15 (Last Chance Invitational). It’s also Central’s turn to host the American Rivers Conference Duals again as Buena Vista University, University of Dubuque and Wartburg College come to town on January 25.
“We’re very home heavy in the second semester,” Van Kley said. “We’ve got some big events at home that should make a very challenging and fun schedule.”