Saturday, March 2, 2024

2023-2024 NAIA Wrestling Recap of the Season


The NAIA national wrestling championships are now said & done, and after a great season of wrestling, '23-'24 NAIA is officially over.  What a great season it was & what a great national tournament it was.  As do all tournaments, the NAIA national tournament had a lot of ups & downs. Positives and negatives. Pros and cons.  Moments that warmed my heart & made me so happy for a wrestler.  Moments that made my heart break for others.  I'm damn near a 39 year old man & these tournaments have my emotions all over the place.  You follow these guys throughout their whole careers. You get to know them. You know the sacrifices they make. You know the work they put into it.  Above anything, you know how bad they want it.  When you watch them succeed, it's a great feeling. When you watch them come up short, it sucks...but it's also a part of it.  The sport offers everything, and within everything lies the disappointment as much as it does the triumph.  Let's recap....

Hunter Sparks NAIA National Champion 125 lbs! 

This kid is freaking tough.  Took out a two time NAIA champion, and secured himself a title of his own.  Hunter Sparks of Eastern Oregon, who was 2nd a year ago, will now go into his senior year of '24-'25 with both a silver & gold medal from the NAIA championships. 

Menlo Senior Goes Out With a Bang!

With COVID-19 and the weirdness of eligibility I'm not 100% sure, but I think Nick Aguilar was a senior this season & I believe his career is said and done.  What a way to go out.  Made the Cascade finals & then turns around and goes through an unbelievably tough field to make the NAIA finals.  

From My Grandma's House To NAIA Bronze! 

If you read JT#1 often, you know that I'm a big fan of Aden Reeves.  He spent about the first 12-14 years of his life living in the house that my Great Grandparents Leomer & Marie Danels once lived in.  (Leomer was quite an athlete himself, playing for the Green Bay Packers farm team back in the 1920's). I've been following Aden Reeves ever since he was in Pee-Wee wrestling.  I was really pulling for him to win the national title, but I knew as tough as loaded as this bracket was, that was going to be a tall order.  Didn't quite get gold, but came back extremely strong to take bronze! 

A Great Career Comes To An End

I'm sure that things didn't quite end for Brandon Orum of Life the way he wanted them to.  A two time NAIA champion, he finished 4th at his final NAIA national tournament.  Nonetheless, what an outstanding career this young man had. The Life Runnin' Eagles are going to have a boatload of success as the years roll past & they'll look back at where it all started. With guys like Orum. 

The Best Back Up in the NAIA? 

Gulomjon Abdullev ruled the NAIA last season, winning a national title at 133 lbs.  Many argued (myself included) that he may very well be the best wrestler in all of the NAIA. It seemed to me though, that many were looking past the fact that the other wrestler at 141 lbs wrestling for the Oaks was freakin' good himself.  I said that at the end of last year when Garcia took 7th at the NAIA championships.  I said that I thought even though Abdullev was getting all the glory, that there as a strong wind beneath those wings.  Garcia more than proved me right, winning the NAIA title.

Just think, next year BOTH Abdullev & Garcia will back next year.  Could see another teammate Vs Teammate final! 

Added To the List of Best To Not Win an NAIA national title 

2nd in the NAIA nation last year & 3rd in the NAIA nation this year, I think it's only fair to conclude that Carson Taylor of Grand View is one of the best to never win an NAIA title. I'm sure that probably weighs on his mind a bit, but really it shouldn't. You're good enough to place top three in the NAIA on more than one occasion during your career, that's something to celebrate, end of story. 

An All American At Last 

I've been a fan of Ca'Ron Watson now for the past five seasons. Each year I kept hoping he'd be an All American & he came so close last year. So close.  3rd-3rd-3rd-2nd in the GPAC, I was shocked when he forfeitted his semi-final match this year & once again took 3rd.  I couldn't make sense of that until I discovered that he wanted his younger brother Jarrod Gilliam to make the finals, to ensure his own NAIA qualification.  Now you tell me, is that an act of selflessness or what? Watson had that much faith & confidence in his own abilities, that he sacrificed winning a GPAC title so that his younger brother would be a qualifier.  That made his capturing 5th place honors at the NAIA championships all the more rewarding.  So cool to see him finally stand on the award stand.  I'll miss see Watson compete. 

Heading into '24-'25 One of the Best Looking for A National Title 

6th-3rd-2nd in the NAIA nation thus far, gotta conclude that for '24-'25 Evan Potter of Southern Oregon will be one of the best yet to win a NAIA title.  Came up a little short against a very tough Hartwell Taylor of Saint Mary in the finals. 

Must Be the Warmer Weather

Being an Iowa kid myself, you know that I'm always gonna have a bit of bias for the Iowa kids.  Perhaps a bit of jealously too.  Gotta be nice training in the warmer Florida climate, while we here in Iowa had a record snow back in January.  Was very happy to see Kael Brisker of Southeastern wrestle well and take a 4th place finish.  Has many more successes ahead of him. 

All American "Coach" Nortje

I'm not sure how many are aware of this, but along with being the 141 lbs starter for the Dickinson State Blue Hawks, Edrich Nortje is also a coach for the Dickinson State Women's wrestling team.  To see that level of commitment & dedication to the sport is something you want to see rewarded.  Also take into consideration that he is a student athlete, with classes and studies. Probably has more going on his his life as well.  Pretty cool to see him end his own collegiate career a 7th place All American. 

This Kid Just Can't Catch A Break

If you can think of a better wrestler going into '24-'25 who has yet to be an All American, I'm all ears, cause as far as I'm concerned Logan Wagner of Marian is the best wrestler in the NAIA yet to earn a top 8 finish.  "You gotta earn it" and I get all that, I've heard it said & resaid for 30 years.  But man, watching him come up one match short the same as he did last year, knowing how good he is and whom all he beat, it was tough to watch.  Thankfully, he's still got one more year left & I'll say this now.  He IS good enough to end '25 with a national title.  I'm saying that here, I'm saying that now.  

Final Season of Career Gives Wrestling Fan A Whole New Perspective

We as wrestling fans have a lot of opinions and perspectives on who is good, who is successful, who is worth talking about and who is worth remembering.  We sure like to convince ourselves that tournament finishes, ect are the end all determination of those facts.  I wonder if that's truly the case though.   See I think Chase Zollman was always a good wrestler. Always a tough kid.   I watched him a few times when he competed at Wyoming & saw the heart & the spirit.  It's simply that Division I wrestling, wasn't the right place for him.  Is it that bad of a thing to admit that? To come to terms with that? 

So many seem to think that it's "DI or nothing" and frankly I feel that mentality is such a load of bullshit.  Stupid.  We have different levels of wrestling for a reason & I'm all for those who come to that discovery.  Had Zollman stayed at Wyoming, his career probably would have ended without much fanfare or press.  Instead he decided to end his career at Missouri Valley.  He had an outstanding senior campaign winning both the Missouri Valley Invitational and the NAIA national title (was 2nd at the Heart of America).   Personally I'd much rather have an end to my career like this, than to try and please the unpleasable who think anyone less than Cael Sanderson is unworthy of their praise. 

A Much Better End to '24 Than to '23

Parker DoBrocky came up a little short of All American honors last year, losing in the dreaded blood round.  A much better end to the season this year for the Fire.  Took a very impressive 3rd place finish! 

Redemption For Nickel 

Watching Bryce Nickel of Cumberlands come up short of All American honor #3 after earning top 8 finishes in '21 & '22 last year was heartbreaking.  I'm sure he probably wanted to finish a lot higher than 8th, but nonetheless for me it was rewarding to see him re-earn All American honors. 

Also Heading into '24-'25 One Of The Best Yet to Win An NAIA title 

If Evan Potter isn't the best heading into '24-'25 yet to win an NAIA title, then I think David Rubio of Corban might be.  He was 2nd last year & he was 2nd this year.   I had a feeling no one was gonna be able to keep Life's Brevin Balmaceda from winning another NAIA title, but I gotta hand it to Rubio he did his best to try and penetrate Balmaceda's impregnable defense.  Rubio is Corban's first two time NAIA finalist & I think he knows as well as I do there's an even better record than that he can break next season. 

Heart Breaks for Southeastern 157 lbs'ers

You know at the start of a tournament that no matter how bad you want things to go the way they "should" that inevitably they won't.  Both Sal Silva & Andreus Bond have been NAIA national champions in the past & both came up short of NAIA All American honors this season.  Seeing this was like having my heart ripped out of my chest for a second.  You just absolutely hate seeing things end this way, but whether you like me saying it or not, there' so much more to a wrestler than the national tournament.  Both of these guys had great careers & should be proud of all that they did achieve. 

Being Healthy Makes a Huge Difference

When Keller Rock went out last season with an injury I said that those in his bracket should be thankful because that opened up one of those top 8 spots that would have otherwise went to Rock.  I said this year I thought he'd contend for the NAIA title & I was right.  Came up a little short with a runner-up finish against a tough Jonathan Kervin of Indiana Tech.  Great season and ended on a high note. 

When It's Time to Get Tough, He gets T-O-U-G-H

I tell you what, when it gets time to wrestle at your best & wrestle tough, you could always count on Rysan Leong. He might not always do the best throughout the season, but when it came time to go to war, he was a gun that you knew would always fire.  An NAIA national champion last year & 3rd in the NAIA nation this year, I hope to see Leong get into coaching. If he's able to instill the same mental toughness he has into wrestlers, that's gonna make for a great team someday. 

What A Turn Around For Central Methodist Freshman 

Without fail, every tournament, someone will seemingly come out of nowhere and have an outstanding showing.  Roman Garcia was 5th in the Heart of America & then he takes 5th at the NAIA championships!  Guess what? 1st-2nd-3rd-4th place in HOA didn't even place! That's what makes this tournament so exciting.  It doesn't matter how you get here, as long as you get here. Once you're here, yesterday is yesterday & today is today! Garcia is proof of it. 

A Year of Redshirting Does A World of Good

Alex Reynolds of Grand View finished one match shy of All American honors in 2022.  He redshirted last year & I figured when he came back for '23-'24, he'd be tougher than ever.  He was & he ended the season a national champion. 

Strong End For Career of Smucker

There's no use reiterating myself, but know that I could say for Riley Smucker of Life, pretty much what I said for Chase Zollman of Missouri Valley.  I also think he helps to illustrate how much better NAIA wrestling has gotten & how good NAIA wrestling has become.  The truth is, like it or not, fans don't pay enough attention.  They still think NAIA wrestling would get pulverized by most DI teams & yeah, for the top 15-20, that is probably true.  BUT let's keep something in mind,  Riley Smucker IS an NCAA DI qualifier.  Qualified back in 2021 for the Cleveland State Vikings.  So he IS because he already proved it, a top 33 wrestler in DI.  He finishes his career at two time NAIA All American with finishes of 3rd & 5th.  I've stated my case for how good NAIA wrestling is today, but believe me, Smucker is far from the only example. 

Not All Ends Are As They Should Be

Over the past few years, Nakoda Siegel of Montana-State Northern has become a favorite of mine. I was really hoping he might end it all as a national champion this year.  I thought for sure he'd end it earning his third All American honor. You never know why things like this happen & you can't help but question it. Nonetheless, you have to keep perspective and I"m gonna say it again cause it can never be said enough....there's more to wrestling than just the national tournament.  

If you don't agree, take this into perspective.  Nakoda Siegel won the Grand View Open earlier this season.  In the semi-finals he took out NAIA champ Alex Reynolds 4-2 s.v.  Not sure what that tells you, but I'll tell you what it says to me.  It says to me that somedays you have good days and some days you have bad days.  It'd be great if the great days always took place on the days we wanted them to take place, but this is reality.  This is life.  They don't. 

Tyson Beauperthuy Comes Up Short of All American Honor 

I was more shocked by this more than anything else. I though Beauperthuy might even challenged Luellen for the NAIA national title, but I thought for sure he'd at least place.  Again this just goes to show how unbelievably tough NAIA wrestling has gotten. It's so much more competitive and fierce than what it was when I was a kid.  It started getting tough by about the time I got into college.  Started seeing some damn tough wrestlers like Darren Cotton of William Penn, Brad Stockton of Waldorf, ect, but still how much it has improved with talent is beyond measurable.   As far as I know (and who knows with the way COVID-19 eligibility works) I'm almost positive that Beauperthuy has at least '24-'25 left.  He might even have '25-'26 left. I don't know for sure.  What I do know is that he's good enough to be an NAIA national champ, if we're talking skills and ability. 

J.D. Perez Earns Second All American Honor 

I attended an NAIA school (Northwestern IA) some twenty years ago & while I was there, I attended every home match. My favorite wrestler on my team was a kid by the name of Chris Keating.  A tough three time state champ from New Mexico.  A kid I think about often.  Three times the R12 during his illustrious career.  I often think back to his senior year & his final match, and what I would give if I could give him that match back again.  Why do I bring him up now? Because in my ways, J.D. Perez reminds me of Keating.  Both from New Mexico, Perez wrestles a similar style to Keating.  He was 6th in the NAIA nation last season & 3rd this season. Believe he'll contend for NAIA title honors next season. 

Teammates Meet in The Finals! 

NAIA wrestling has been around since I believe the '58-'59 season or maybe the '57-'58 season.  I think one of those two years is correct.  I also know that for quite sometime the NAIA has allowed teams to put more than one wrestler at a weight class. What I don't know, is if teammates have ever met in the NAIA finals before or not.  I try and keep track of as much in the sport of collegiate wrestling as I can, but this is a question I do not know the answer to.  I would think that if it has happened before, it hasn't happened much.   Owen Braungardt of Grand View winning another NAIA title, this time against teammate Garavous Koukabakilaho, is a very rare happening.  Maybe the first time this has ever happened? 

UPDATE:  Asked expert Jason Bryant about this.  It's actually the 12th time it has happened in the NAIA & the 3rd time it has happened specifically to Grand View. 

HWT Ends On Disappointing Note

You never wanna see a match end the way the HWT match did.  Both of these guys are two of the best NAIA has to offer & no one wanted to see it end on an injury default.  Hopefully Greg Hagan, one of the best HWT's in the NAIA of all time, is ok.  Congrats to Zane Lanham of Life, very happy for him, but I think he'd much rather have won the NAIA title on different circumstances.  Both of these guys I believe are done now, as eligibility should be up.  Two great wrestlers, multiple time AA's, both NAIA champs. 

Once Again Back On Top 

 I have a lot of wrestlers I love watching year in and year out & one of my very favorites has been Joshua Isaac of Missouri Valley.  He's built like a bulldog, but moves like a Cheetah.  I still can't get over for his size, how quick, agile & fast he his.  When he missed out on his third All American honor last year, that really broke my heart.  I thought he was done, but then learned back in September that he'd be back for one more season.  When I saw that he was back in the R12 match again, I sat and tapped my feet.  It's like I know he can win the match, but until it was over, you couldn't help but be nervous.  He wasted no time and got a quick fall.  Then he got another quick fall in the consolation quarter finals.   What a great career for the Viking!  Ends it all now a three time All American, this season a 5th place finish.  Also may I add, won the Missouri Valley Invitational! 


Is this more I could say?  As always yes.  I could write about so many more wrestlers and so many more happenings at this great tournament.  Yet I also know that I've already asked to much of your attention span to get this far, so I had to narrow it down.  And yes, I did narrow it down. 

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