CONCORDIA, Kansas — In its inaugural season on campus, the Cloud County Community College wrestling program weathered the bumps and bruises associated with an upstart program and went on to qualify six of its 10 weights for the NJCAA Wrestling National Championships.
With a full offseason under their belts, the T-Birds are optimistic about what the team can accomplish in Year Two with its first mixture of experience sophomores and fresh crop of talented freshmen.
Cloud County is set to open the 2018-19 season on Sunday, Nov. 4 at the Oklahoma City University Open. Before that, the T-Birds will host their second annual Black and Gold Scrimmage at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30.
"I think we went out and got a very good freshman class to come in," said Cloud County head coach, Cody Cole. "Our sophomores are fresh and ready to go. I think we're going to be a really good dual team and an even better tournament team later in the year as we continue to progress."
Aziere finished third at last year's West-Central District Tournament at 174-pounds, while Hernandez earned fourth in the heavyweight division and Young (197) placed fifth to solidify their spots at nationals.
The T-Birds returns experienced guys at 125 pounds with Jorge Vega, Tanner McGivney (133), Tyren Castonguay (141) and Hosteen Smith (184). They'll also see the anticipated debuts of redshirt freshmen Bryce Gfeller (141), and medical redshirts Zach Bowen (197) and Austin Eldredge (149).
Cole said he has seen a heightened focus from his guys so far this season after getting their first taste of collegiate wrestling last winter.
"Last year, I don't think we understood at the beginning what it's like to wrestle at this level," Cole said. "It's been fun to see the training mentality be different this year. Guys are taking dieting more seriously, taking weight lifting seriously. The guys have really stepped up their training and understand you have to be bought-in all the time. From academics to wrestling, the guys are doing a lot of stuff right and that mentality is what has me excited."
Also battling it out for spots up and down Cloud County's lineup is a talented group of 14 freshmen, which includes Concordia's own Blake Leiszler at 133 pounds, Wamego native Matthew Cruickshank (174), Blayne Harris (125) from Beloit, and Brady Lowell (125) out of Republic County High School.
The T-Birds have also brought in a handful of out of state wrestlers who figure to provide an impact in Coloradoans Kobryn Mann and Quentin Jiner at 157 pounds, and three-time Missouri state champion Dakota Miller at 133 pounds.
"Dakota is a guy I can see being a top-4 wrestler in the country just on how talented he is, how hard he wrestles, and how well he knows the sport," Cole said.
Cloud County starts the regular season with eight road events, which includes stops to dual NCAA Division II programs in Colorado Mesa University, Western State Colorado University and Newman Unviersity, before hosting back-to-back duals against Ottawa University and Oklahoma Wesleyan University on Dec. 13-14.
"That little run right there to begin the season is exciting for me because the sophomores will get to sell themselves and look at schools as they compete against some really good teams that have been nationally ranked and produced national champions," Cole said. "Then we'll finish off the fall semester with our first two home duals and those will be exciting to have in front of our crowd."
Cloud County has five home duals in total this season, including Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference (KJCCC) duals against Colby (Jan. 23) and Northwest Kansas Tech (Jan. 30).
The 2018-19 season will be the first time the KJCCC has ever crowned a conference team champion. All KJCCC members have three individual dual nights against conference opponents during the regular season. All the KJCCC teams will then meet up on Feb. 2-3 in Pratt for the Jayhawk Duals where they will square off to decide the championship.
"There will be a Jayhawk Conference champion for the first time, which I think will be great for the conference. I think we're in a good position to challenge for that," Cole said. "Our team definitely thinks we can win the duals in its inaugural year. I think we match up well with a lot of teams and we want to hunt for that."
Just two weeks later, the T-Birds will begin their postseason stretch run with the West-Central District Tournament on Feb. 16, and the NJCAA Wrestling National Championships on March 1-2.
"We've set the bar where we'd definitely like to come back from the district tournament with a trophy," Cole said. "Getting into nationals, the goals turn into 'Let's get as many All-Americans as we can.' I definitely think we're capable of qualifying guys at all 10 weights and I'd like to see our team in the top-15 in the country. That's how you get invited to big national duals and how you start to grow the program, so we'll be shooting for that top-15."