PELLA—Nine returning starters. Four returning NCAA Division III tournament qualifiers. And one significant hole in the Central College wrestling lineup as the 2018-19 season opens Nov. 5.
A young Dutch squad was ranked in the top 25 most of last season and finished 34th at the NCAA tourney, fueling high expectations for 2018-19. Two of the returnees, Cam Timok (senior, Glen Allen, Va.) at 133 pounds and 141-pounder Daniel Radcliffe (junior, Lockport, Ill.), were national qualifiers in 2017. Two others, 165-pounder Jeremy Vester (senior, Oak Harbor, Wash.) and 174-pounder Nathan Fritz (junior, Sigourney), made the field a year ago, giving Central the most returning national qualifiers it’s had since 1993. But Central must replace the program’s second-ever three-time all-America honoree, graduated 125-pounder C.J. Pestano. Following a dominant season, Pestano suffered an injury but still pulled off a sixth-place NCAA finish after placing fourth in 2017 and second in 2016.
Central was 6-4 overall and 4-4 in the fiercely competitive Iowa Conference, now known as the American Rivers, finishing in a three-way tie for fourth place.
The steady rise in the program’s fortunes that began with coach Eric Van Kley’s arrival in 2007 should continue.
“We have the potential to do some really special things,” Van Kley said. “We have the returning experience and talent to maybe be a little better than last year. But the critical thing for us is, we have to put in the work and develop in the same way we did going into the regional last year. I thought we did an outstanding job of peaking at the regional tournament last year and it all starts over this year.
“We have a lot of talent and experience. It’s a matter of coming together and each guy becoming the best he can be.”
The Dutch will be young at Pestano’s old spot but Van Kley likes his options. Freshmen Eric Santana of Palm Desert, California and Chase Poston of Olympia, Washington will compete with sophomore Carlos Posas, who was 5-9 a year ago. The position will likely be decided on the tournament mat, as each will see extensive pre-Christmas action.
“It will probably be at least half the season before we figure out the eventual starter is,” Van Kley said. “We’ve intentionally put together a schedule with a lot of tournaments early in the season. That’s really what it’s going to take, just a lot of matches and a lot of competition to see who is the most ready.”
Van Kley thinks it will be a productive struggle.
“They’ve really responded well to the competition amongst each other,” he said. “They’re working hard and pushing each other, which is exactly what we wanted to see.”
With a 19-1 mark, including 10 falls, Timok was on the fast track to repeat all-America honors last year before being sidelined by a recurring injury. He received conference male athlete of the week honors last December, and captured four tournament titles, giving him seven tourney crowns in two seasons. Timok has a glossy 47-5 career mark. He was fifth nationally in 2017 and is aiming even higher for 2019, receiving a No. 3 national ranking in the National Wrestling Coaches Association preseason poll.
“Cam was having a terrific season,” Van Kley said. “He’s very hungry to have a national tournament opportunity and a chance to get back on the all-America podium.”
Four wrestlers are the lead contenders for two spots. Van Kley said Radcliffe, Tristan Clark (senior, Monroe, Prairie City-Monroe HS), Jordan Challen (senior, Jefferson, Greene County HS) and Chase Petty (senior, Pella) could each go at either 141 or 149 pounds.
Clark was 17-10 with seven falls and Radcliffe was 16-10 there last year while Challen was 21-13 with nine falls and Petty was 10-12 at 149.
A two-time all-conference honoree, Radcliffe was 30-10 as a freshman, while Clark and Challen are three-time letterwinners and Petty has lettered twice.
“They can all move up or down which gives us a lot of depth at those two weights,” Van Kley said. “I foresee all four getting varsity opportunities and I feel confident in all four. I think the eventual second-semester lineup will sort itself out based on how they perform in those opportunities.”
However, a freshman could force his way into the picture. Van Kley said he’ll keep an eye on Rob Areyano (Selma, Calif.), a product of a nationally prominent Selma High School program.
“He has really embraced the competitiveness of a college wrestling room,” Van Kley said.
Junior Collin Groleau (Peru, Ill., LaSalle-Peru Township HS) returns at 157 pounds, where he posted a 22-10 mark last year with one tournament crown.
“Collin was very consistent for us last year, but he was a bit disappointed with his regional tournament,” Van Kley said. “We’re relying on him this year and need a lot out of him.”
Vester made a big leap, getting a taste of NCAA tournament action last year and is ranked No. 9 in the NWCA poll. He received all-conference recognition and twice received Central’s Most Improved Performer Award. Vester won two tournament titles en route to a 25-9 record and has won 47 matches over the past two seasons.
“Jeremy is hungry to get back to the national tournament and get on the all-America podium,” Van Kley said. “I’m extremely proud of the work he put in in the off-season. He’s made significant improvement in his overall offense and we’re excited to see him compete.”
Fritz also made his NCAA debut last year after clawing his way through the regional, where he finished third. He was 19-5 with five falls and a pair of tournament titles. He also received NWCA Scholar All-American recognition.
“Nathan had a breakout season,” Van Kley said. “He asserted himself at the conference and national level and his hungry to get to the national tournament again. He has made a lot of improvement in the off-season.”
Senior Jeremy Scheurmann (Jefferson, Greene County HS), an academic all-conference honoree, was 5-8 last year and is a two-time letterwinner.
“Jeremy got some very good experience at 165 and 174 and we look for him to make significant contributions to the varsity lineup,” Van Kley said.
Wayne Sommerlot (sophomore, Pocahontas) is a returning starter at 184 but he’ll get a strong push from senior Lane Rumelhart (Guthrie Center) and sophomore Griffen McBride (Pleasantville), who are both bumping up from 174 pounds.
Sommerlot showed promise with a 17-12 freshman campaign that included six falls.
Rumelhart is a three-time letterwinner who was 16-2 with six falls last year and McBride was 16-9 with seven falls in his rookie season.
“This is our deepest weight,” Van Kley said. “We’ve got three of our most experienced guys all at the same weight. But we really view depth as a solution and not a problem. They’re all making each other better.”
A pair of sophomores are the leaders at 197. Gavin Babcock (Altoona, Southeast Polk HS) was 13-8 with 10 falls and one tournament crown as a freshman. Mike Escobedo (Tucson, Ariz.) was 3-7.
“These are two guys we’re pretty excited about,” Van Kley said. “They have made big improvement since their freshman year.”
Van Kley thinks the Dutch are making an upgrade at 285 pounds with Duncan Lee (junior, Newton) moving up from 197. He was 21-12 with nine falls and one tournament title.
“Duncan has grown into the weight with a good off-season of weight training,” Van Kley said. “He has embraced the challenge of going into the heavyweight spot and will be pretty formidable. He’s strong and extremely bright and has put in a tremendous amount of time on the mat the last six months.”
The pre-Christmas schedule gets a fresh look with the addition of the Scotty Wood Duals in Allentown, Pennsylvania Nov. 17.
“One thing we’re very intentional about is really getting all of our roster a significant amount of matches,” Van Kley said. “We’ll get to see some solid competition against some schools from the Northeast we wouldn’t otherwise see.
But we also wanted to take a fun trip as a team. This will be a neat experience for our guys and they’re really excited about it.”
Central also added the season-opening Pointer Open Nov. 3 at Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
“A majority of the stronger Wisconsin programs will be there, which is why we put it on the schedule,” Van Kley said. “I just think it’s a great shot to test ourselves and see what we’ve got to work on.”
Even with Central’s potential, bettering last year’s fourth-place league finish is far from a sure thing as the powerful conference contenders yield ground grudgingly. Three league teams are in the NWCA’s preseason top-15 with defending national champ Wartburg College fourth, Coe College sixth and Loras College tied for 13th.
“We’re extremely excited about the challenge of competing in the America Rivers,” Van Kley said. “We take a tremendous amount of pride in that, we feel, our conference is the strongest wrestling conference in the country. Our guys love that we get to compete with other nationally competitive teams.
“We’ll at times have three, if not four, teams in the top 15 in the country but what I love about our conference is, if we’re able to compete and be successful in our conference, that gives us a lot of confidence that we can compete nationally.”
Central had top-20 national team finishes in 2016 and 2017, placing 20th and 18th, respectively, and an even loftier perch is within the squad’s grasp in March, Van Kley said.
“I think sending three to five guys to nationals is a realistic goal,” he said. “We have four returning qualifiers and I think, for us, it’s a matter of taking that next step of both getting there and coming home with all-American accolades. But every single one of them is going to have to wrestle their best to get there. They know that and we know that and we’ve really got to develop over the course of the season.”