PELLA — Coach Eric Van Kley detected smiles behind the masks of his Central College wrestlers as long delayed opening workouts finally launched in mid-December.
The belated opening of the Central wrestling center was a joyful day for a potential-filled squad. Van Kley is hoping he gets to see that potential on the mat when a modified and abbreviated schedule eventually kicks off Jan. 23.
“The hardest part of this season is I just do not know what we have,” he said. “We’re very much a developmental program. We feel like our guys get better as the season goes on and as their career goes on. But because of COVID, and not being able to see them, we’re kind of reserving judgment on what we’re capable of.”
Van Kley’s hunch is that he has a team that’s trending upwards springboarding from Central’s best 2019-20 tourney performance, which turned out to be its final one. The Dutch surged to fifth place in a powerhouse 18-team NCAA Division III Lower Midwest Regional field, sending three wrestlers to the Division III Championships, only to have them return without wrestling a national tourney match as the athletics world shut down when the pandemic hit in March.
“On one hand, we graduated some tremendous seniors last year and, on the other hand, I think we’ve got some guys that really have a lot of potential,” Van Kley said. “We’ve just got to get them on the mat after Christmas break and see where we’re at.”
After a fairly steady ascent in recent years, the regular season was a bit of a step back for the Dutch program. Central was 12-6 but 3-5 in the slugfest known as the American Rivers Conference, resulting in a sixth-place finish. But the regional resurgence gave a jump start to the program’s progress.
Five of the 10 regional tourney starters are back, among 13 returning letter winners. Van Kley is hopeful that even in a condensed season with less preparation, this year’s team has the tools to accelerate the climb.
“I think it does but it’s a new year,” he said. “We feel confident in the culture of our program and the ability to develop a team over the course of a season. At the same time, it all starts over. These are new guys that need to show it and in 2021, we’re going to have to be pretty resilient.”
Junior Chase Poston (junior, Olympia, Wash.) was 15-16 last year, winning the Central Last Chance Invitational title and placing fourth at the Pointer Open, but going 1-2 in the regional. Freshmen Jackson Bresson (Ankeny, Centennial HS) and Luke Henkhaus (Geneseo, Ill.) could challenge.
“We’re going to have several people get opportunities,” Van Kley said. “Chase Poston is a returning letter winner, had some varsity experience and did some good things. I think we’re also excited about a few freshmen at that weight and a couple others. It’s something where we’re going to have to see them in the room for a couple weeks to see where things are and who steps up.”
Shandon Akeo (junior, Honolulu, Hawaii, Kapolei HS) earned all-conference distinction in his first year with the Dutch, posting a 21-8 mark at 133 pounds with eight falls. He was first at the MSOE (Wis.) Invitational and fourth at the regional.
“Shandon had a tremendous regional tournament,” Van Kley said. “He placed fourth in a very daunting field, beat a couple of nationally ranked guys there and I think really wrestled his best on the biggest stage. So we’re very excited to have him returning. He looks tremendous. His work ethic and commitment are off the charts.”
Depth at 133 is a question, however, as there’s not a clear-cut back-up.
Eric Santana (junior, Palm Desert, Calif.) was at 125 pounds last year, going 1-6 after a 13-8 freshman season, but outgrew the weight class and could land at 141, where there’s an opening.
“Eric Santana is a returning letter winner who’s got some experience,” Van Kley said. “There’s always a transition time when you’re adjusting to a new weight and a new style, but that’s something I think he can grow into and get used to.”
He’ll contend with freshman Brock Beck (Grinnell)
“Brock Beck had a tremendous high school career and has looked really good in our initial practices,” Van Kley said.
Van Kley groups 149 and 157 pounds together as he’s unsure where last year’s team MVP, Rob Areyano (junior, Selma, Calif.) will line up. He was 23-2 at 149 last year and 51-8 in a pair of all-conference seasons at Central with 27 falls. He captured two tournament titles before placing fifth in a daunting weight class at the regional tournament, still gaining an NCAA national tourney berth. His training efforts may necessitate a bump up to 157.
“One of the challenges with this year is not having our (early season) tournaments to allow you to see how different guys are at different weights,” Van Kley said. “But Rob will be somewhere at 149 or 157. He’s lifted a lot in the off-season and put in some really good work. We’ll have to see when he comes back and we get a week or two into the season to see where he lands.”
If he’s at 157, the top contender at 149 is Ryne Mohrfeld (sophomore, Lisbon). He was 8-14 a year ago.
“Ryne did some good things that we’re excited about,” Van Kley said. “We also have some freshmen but right now it’s just so hard to know when you have only seen the freshmen a couple times and they’re drilling with a mask on.”
If Areyano stays at 149, Van Kley will likely look at Luke Condy (sophomore, Memphis, Tenn., Christian Brothers HS) or his brother Levi Condy (sophomore, Memphis, Tenn., Christian Brothers HS) at 157. Luke Condy was 17-15 at 157 last year and received the team’s Outstanding Freshman Award. Levi Condy was 14-9 at 165.
“They’ve really had a tremendous off-season of training and we’re excited to see them at 157 and 165,” Van Kley said.
Chris Wilson (sophomore, Houston, Texas, Cypress Ridge HS) is also a possibility at 165 but could go at 174. He was 11-8 in his rookie season.
“Chris got a couple of varsity starts last year,” Van Kley said.
Wilson will more likely open at 174 where he’ll compete with senior Jackson Gissel (Gilbert, Ariz., Williams Field HS). A two-time letter winner, Gissel was 10-13 at 157 last year but is moving up.
“Both of those guys have a great work ethic and show great leadership,” Van Kley said. “And you just know you’re always going to get their best effort every time they step on the mat.”
More weight-class decisions await Van Kley at 184 and 197 pounds. Griffin McBride (senior, Pleasantville) and Peyton Hammerich (sophomore, Princeton, Ill.) are the frontrunners for starting spots but Van Kley is unsure of the order.
McBride was the starter at 184 last year, earning all-conference honors. He was 21-9 with a third-place finish at the Central Under Armour Invitational and a fourth-place regional showing. He was 26-5 in 2018-19 and is 63-23 for his career with 22 falls.
“Griffin was nationally ranked last year and has had an excellent career thus far,” Van Kley said.
Hammerich lettered at 174 pounds, going 13-13 in his rookie year with five falls.
“Peyton had a very successful freshman year and has improved even more going into his sophomore year,” Van Kley said. “We’ll just have to see them in the room to determine who goes where.
“Both of them could make weight at either weight and be successful. We’ve just got to see who feels better and looks better at those two weights but we feel like those will be two of our stronger weight classes.”
In particular, McBride’s star is starting to shine, Van Kley said.
“He’s capable of making the national tournament and being an all-American,” he said. “I think he showed that last year. He beat a couple of nationally ranked guys. His work ethic is off the charts and he’s extremely coachable.”
There’s a big hole at 285 pounds but Van Kley said the Dutch have answers.
“We think this may be one of our strongest weights this year,” he said.
Junior Sam Zook (Oak Harbor, Wash.) will get the first look. Zook was 18-8 with 12 falls last year, winning the Central Last Chance Invitational title.
“Sam has put on 30 pounds of muscle over the off-season and will be a really strong heavyweight,” Van Kley said. “He obviously had a tremendous workout partner last year in (graduated regional champion) Duncan Lee.
Freshman Gage Linahon (Newton) is likely to be varsity-ready.
“Gage Linahon comes with tremendous high school credentials as a state finalist last year and has looked really good,” Van Kley said.
Both will benefit from specialized instruction as Lee is sticking around as a volunteer assistant coach and the Dutch last winter added Brad Steele to the staff. Steele is a former high school head coach and was an NCAA national qualifier at heavyweight for the University of Wyoming.
“I really give a lot of credit at that weight to having a specialized heavyweight coach in Coach Steele,” Van Kley said. “And having Duncan Lee help out this year, I think we have a unique situation. We can be pretty strong there for the foreseeable future.”
While the Dutch have made a steady climb as a program, Van Kley doesn’t hide his disappointment in the squad’s slip to sixth in the powerful American Rivers last year.
“It’s an awesome challenge that we are in far and away the toughest conference in the country,” he said. “Last year we had three of the top five ranked teams in Division III. But it’s on us to keep improving and somehow, some way, bust into that group. I don’t know whether that will be this year or some year in the future but it’s going to take a concerted effort by everybody in our program. We need to continue develop coaching-wise and recruiting-wise and we need commitment by the guys on our team. It’s a big hill to climb when you look at the quality of teams in our conference and our region right now but we want to embrace that challenge.”
That’s asking a lot, but navigating a global pandemic is far more taxing. The Dutch won’t hit the accelerator hard on practices until after New Year’s Day yet have to be at full throttle Jan. 23 to take on two nationally ranked foes at Dubuque with league duals against Loras College and Coe College.
“Those were both teams that ranked in the top five, top seven in the country,” Van Kley said. “But honestly, I kind of like that because we know we’ve got to get ready and we’ve got to get ready quick. There’s no working our way into it.”
The normal rhythm of a season has teams pointing to peak at season’s end with the regional and national tournament. But with the uncertainty of the virus, Van Kley said the Dutch need to bring a national tournament mindset to each dual meet because as they found out last year, the season is an NCAA email announcement away from reaching that season’s end at any point.
“We’ve got to be ready to the best of our ability, whatever that looks like, because it could be a very short season,” he said. “It’s not a, ‘Hey, we’ve got four or five months to get there.’ We’ve got to be there, two weeks after we get back. So that’s why I say, I kind of like that sense of urgency.
“Starting with the teams we have on the schedule and the teams we have in our conference, is unbelievably daunting. But I don’t know why we’d want it any other way. Let’s wrestle teams that are going to demand our best and do what we can with it.”
Yet the Dutch are training as though the regional and national tourneys are certainties. And Van Kley can’t wait.
“I think last year showed the depth and strength of our region is just absolutely off the charts in comparison to other places in the country,” he said. “And I’ll continue to say I thought last year’s performance was as good of an effort by our team and coaches as any I’ve ever been a part of. I couldn’t be more proud of them. And we’ve got to look at this year--although it has unique challenges—in the same way. That’s where our target and focuses are of being as ready as we possibly can and working towards that.”
Unprecedented hurdles, restrictions and shortened schedules aside, Van Kley said his squad’s top priority is to carry a sense of gratitude throughout the year.
“I would say we left practice before Christmas with an unbelievably thankful group of guys because we got to be in a wrestling room, and we know there are a lot of wrestlers in the country who didn’t get to do that,” he said. “We know there are a lot of college and high school teams that aren’t able to do what we did. We got to do something we love and enjoy. And whatever we’re able to do with that during second semester, we’re not going to take for granted. And we’re going to do it to the best of our ability.”