Big things happening out west
By Scott Farrell
The stage is set out west for a shootout next season among teams looking to rise and take the lead as the NCWA’s top team along the west coast.
Based on the standings from last month’s NCWA Championships, a handful of new programs are already poised to compete on par with those with more NCWA tenure. Which makes for a wild, wild west in the 2013-14 season if Central Washington, Montana Western, Sacramento State and USC can repeat seasons that saw all four programs finish in the top 17 in the NCWA’s Division II for emerging programs. CWU (fifth) and UWM (tied for sixth) both placed in the top six.
The strong seasons on those campuses, plus another from Dixie State (Utah), helped create new anchors for collegiate wrestling out west, and as a group they have already held their own against more seasoned NCWA programs. It was an impressive start, and the early success out west could not have happened at a better time for the NCWA, which will lose its two-time national champion California Baptist to NCAA Division II membership this summer.
The new programs in California and Washington allowed the NCWA to re-establish its Northwest Conference and downsize its West Coast Conference to allow for more intra-conference competition and award more national qualifying bids to members out west.
Previously, almost every school west of the Rocky Mountains was in the WCC, and consistent competition against conference peers proved difficult with the members so spread out. The travel costs just to meet conference mates were enough that finding additional funds to attend national NCWA events was difficult.
The NWC and WCC took advantage of the realignment opportunity. Five of the top 20 teams in Division II were NWC or WCC members, and as a group placed them outside of the long shadow Cal Baptist cast in its three NCWA seasons.
Six of Central Washington’s seven qualifiers scored points at nationals, and the Wildcats earned their first All-American when Nick Bendon took sixth at 157 pounds. Montana Western’s Harley Fandrich took seventh at 285 to become that program’s first All-American, and the Bulldogs tied for sixth with 20.5 points as all four of their qualifiers scored points.
Three other debut programs, Western Washington (20th), Eastern Washington (tied for 36th) and The Evergreen State College (tied for 41st) also scored at nationals. Their early success, along with that at CWU and UMW, should maintain an NCWA presence in the Pacific Northwest and create great competition that will assist in recruiting interest.
Down in California, first-year program USC surprised at nationals with a 17th-place finish in Division II, and earned its first All-American. Nick Cegelski, a freshman, finished sixth at 149 pounds as one of a pair of Trojans at the nationals along with 165-pound sophomore Armand Farrokh. USC qualified four wrestlers to nationals from their fourth-place team finish at the WCC Championships, but budget constraints allowed for only Cegelski and Farrokh to attend.
“For Nick and me to be going as the first two national (qualifiers) in USC history was a daunting thought, but it felt amazing,” Farrokh said in an interview with USC’s Daily Trojan newspaper following the tournament. “I finally felt that I had some attachment to USC, and that I was representing the Trojan family.”
Sacramento State and San Jose State have more NCWA tenure on their side for the moment, and continue to grow their programs. Sacramento State tied for 15th place just a half-point ahead of USC at nationals with only three qualifiers. The Hornets challenged to earn their first All-American as Jerramiah Mack advanced three rounds into the consolation bracket at 141 pounds.
San Jose State had two qualifiers at nationals, but did not score. The Spartans still seek their first All-American since 2008, but along with Sacramento State consistently has the largest rosters among the emerging programs in California.
Another upstart program out west could come from Dixie State, which did not send anyone to the national tournament, but showed its postseason potential with a second-place finish to Cal Baptist at the WCC Championships. DSU had six national qualifiers there, and scored 113 points, placing itself almost as far ahead of the rest of the WCC field (third-place Sacramento State was 38 points behind) as it was behind champion Cal Baptist (55).
It’s quite a battle that brewing among the young rosters at those schools out west. But for whoever comes out on top next season, there’s no reason to think they won’t play into the national championship discussion as well.
“It’s easy to be timid and think that we could never be anything but a club, but that’s not the route we’ve taken,” USC head coach Wes Fulkerson said in the same Daily Trojan story. “We’re building, and we want to be able to compete with the best.”