NDSU wrestling has experienced individual success, but this season, it’s time for the team to rise.
Photo By Andrew Jason
The Bison finished seventh in the Big 12 last season and qualified three wrestlers for the NCAA Championships. It wasn’t good enough for a program that’s back in the spotlight. This year, with a big conference win in its back pocket, the Bison wrestlers are ready to bring this proud program back in the national conscious.
The North Dakota State wrestling program opened the SCHEELS Center at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex with a bang this November. In what was possibly the biggest dual win in program history, the Bison knocked off No. 14 Iowa State in dramatic fashion. Cordell Eaton’s major decision and Ben Tynan’s pin gave NDSU the lead in total team points going into the last match. The closer, the 125-pound two-time NCAA Championship qualifying Josh Rodriguez stepped onto the mat for the finale. The match was over before you could blink an eye. The senior from Guadalupe, California, won big, defeating the Cyclones’ Kyle Larson 25-9.
The victory was NDSU’s first over a ranked opponent in a year and a half and can be equated to what the football team did to Northern Iowa back in 2011.
Back in 2011, NDSU had already left its mark in Division I FCS football when they made a run all the way to the quarterfinals of the playoffs and were the No. 3-ranked team in the country. On Halloween eve, UNI paid a visit to the Fargodome to play NDSU for the fourth time since the Bison moved to the FCS. The Bison had yet to beat its old North Central Conference rival who now joined them in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
The No. 2-ranked Panthers were riding a three-game win streak over the Bison before a Brock Jensen and D.J. McNorton led Bison offense outlasted the UNI defense to a 27-19 victory. You know the rest. NDSU goes on to win its first of five straight FCS National Championships, including five wins in its last six games against UNI. They had finally arrived in the MVFC.
The wrestling team is looking to do the same in the Big 12.
They aren’t likely to win the national championship this year, but defeating a Top 15 team and a program that has suddenly become a peer within the conference in Iowa State is a good start. It was the first time NDSU has beaten Cyclones, who finished 12th nationally last year, avenging three-straight dual meet defeats, including a 42-0 shutout in 2008.
NDSU’s second season in the Big 12 is off to a hot start.
“Boy, I think we wrestled really well,” first-year assistant coach Matt Nagel said after the upset over Iowa State. “I don’t think we won a whole lot of the first periods but we won every single third period and that’s what mattered and at the end of the match, that’s what the score showed. Our effort was great.”
Jarrod Garnett reiterated Nagel’s comments about each wrestler closing in the final period. He added that was the game plan all along, saying that’s why they condition the wrestlers so hard.
“We used MatBoss and it breaks it down by the period. And in the third period, we outscored Iowa State 36- 20. We outscored them by 16 total match points, and I think that speaks volumes for what we’re trying to do,” Garnett said. “Ryan Napoli, who is a former college wrestler himself, is our strength coach. He works only with us and football. He does a lot of muscle conditioning with our guys and he makes sure their muscles are holding up out there.”
The Bison begin their Big 12 record 1-1, losing to No. 17 Oklahoma the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
J-Rod and Jarrod
Josh Rodriguez, or J-Rod as his teammates and coaches call him, is coming off another season of falling short of his goal at the NCAA Championships. He was one win short of making the eighth place cut off for All-American.
Rodriguez emerged his freshman season in 2012-13 when he was forced into action early, only months off the high school mat. He notched a 22-15 record, spending most of the season behind NDSU’s first All-American in the Division I era, Trent Sprenkle.
The following season, Rodriguez redshirted and went undefeated while wrestling unattached at tournaments.
He was ready for the spotlight as a redshirt sophomore, wrestling as the number one 125-pounder for the Bison. He didn’t disappoint going 20-8, winning the NCAA West Regional over two other ranked opponents and qualifying for his first NCAA Championship. Rodriguez went 2-2 and was on the trajectory toward finishing as an All-American before his career is over.
Rodriguez’s bid for All-American status was put on hold for another year after last season’s junior campaign. In the second round of the NCAA Championships, Rodriguez would lose to the eventual 125-pound champion Nico Megaludis from Penn State. During wrestlebacks, Rodriguez beat Central Michigan’s Brent Fleetwood 7-0 and Cornell’s Dalton Macri 5-4. He was one win away from claiming a Top 8 finish, and clinching an All-American spot, but was pinned by Northern Iowa’s Dylan Peters.
With one season left, Rodriguez wasn’t wasting any time this offseason. He was back on the makeshift practice mat in the grocery store off 19th Avenue two days after nationals.
“I want to start already,” Rodriguez said last April. “I remember losing at nationals in (2015) and thinking, ‘Wow, I have two years left. This feeling sucks.’ Now I felt it again this year (2016) in the Round of 12. I just couldn’t be more ready to get the season started again.”
“Josh reminds me of myself,” assistant coach Jarrod Garnett said. Garnett wrestled at Virginia Tech from 2008-13. He qualified for the NCAA Championships four times in five years. After going 2-2 his first time at nationals, he finished one win away from All-American status his second year, just like Rodriguez.
His third year at Nationals, in 2011, Garnett took a step backward finishing 2-2. He stormed back after a redshirt season, to qualify for his fourth NCAA Championship meet in 2013. Garnett stumbled out of the gates, losing his first match as the fifth seed. He crawled his way back winning the next five matches placing sixth, one spot behind NDSU’s Trent Sprenkle, Rodriguez’s predecessor.
“He’s not afraid of going out there and wrestling through positions and he loves scoring points and he doesn’t do the whole ‘show respect toward his opponent’ thing,” Garnett said of Rodriguez, who he’s been coaching for over a year. “He goes after guys no matter who it is and that was something that drew me in right away.”
Garnett, like Rodriguez, was on the cusp his entire career and a win here or a win there from being truly great. Garnett finally reached his goal his senior season, and all the signs shown in November are pointing in Rodriguez’s direction.
Rodriguez won by technical fall in the first dual against Iowa State this year. After closing out the upset victory, he breezed to his fourth Bison Open Championship recording two pins and another technical fall.
“He’s already a great wrestler and working with him, there haven’t been a ton of changes,” Garnett said. “He’s already good on bottom. He typically gets away from everyone. The one thing we had to change was his riding. He’s typically a guy who is so comfortable on his seat, so he wouldn’t ride guys. Being on top, being a hammer on top, takes a lot out of guys, but not only gets you the riding point, but it takes a lot out of guys and now, especially with near falls being worth four points, for holding a guy on his back. I think it’s more important that we’re good in that position. With the amount of takedowns he’s able to get combined with the ability to turn guys, I don’t think there’s anybody who can beat him in the country.”
Rodriguez began the season as the 8th ranked 125-pound wrestler in the country. Based on the preseason ranking, Rodriguez would qualify for a spot among the All-Americans and, like Garnett, going down in his school’s history books. But Rodriguez said in April he wants to go further than that.
“My goal is to be a national champion.”
A Good Mix
Josh Rodriguez isn’t the only returning Bison with NCAA Championship experience on his resume. Clay Ream, a junior from Wentzville, Missouri, is back wrestling at 149 pounds.
Ream lasted three matches in the 2016 NCAA Championships, which was one match less than he lasted in 2015. But his one win was monumental.
After dropping his first match, Ream was set to wrestle North Carolina’s two- time All-American Evan Henderson. Ream chased him all over the ring, defeating the eight-seeded Henderson with a technical fall.
Junior Mitch Bengtson also returns for the Bison after qualifying for the NCAA Championships in 2015. He was set to represent NDSU at 141 before a lower-leg injury put him in a walking boot.
In the meantime, Bison fans can expect juniors Joe Umlauf and Tommy Walton, who is down from 149, to duke it out for the 141-pound spot on the roster.
The Bison will also feature youth among the experienced core group of starters, specifically at 165 with Andrew Fogarty, who won his matchup against Iowa State along with 197-pound Cordell Eaton.
“I think that was what we were really pleased with,” assistant Matt Nagel said. “With 165, Andrew Fogarty, coming out in his first college dual meet and getting into a good match with a kid that has been around a long time and coming through with a big win and then also, Carter Nielsen is another redshirt freshman. He didn’t come away with a win, but he had a ranked opponent, and a returning all-American, but still, it was a good showing that he’s still going to be in the mix as well.
“To have three redshirt freshmen, in that type of environment against that dual meet team, was really, really exciting.”
The Bison finished seventh as a new member of the Big 12 conference last season. They were third among the Western Wrestling Conference members that merged into the Big 12. South Dakota State finished fourth and Wyoming was fifth and finished nine points ahead of NDSU.
“It was a little disappointing for us,” Garnett said. “But as we looked toward this year, even though we still have some young guys in the lineup, they are really experienced. When you look at us putting a young guy like Cam Sykora, Andrew Fogarty, Carter Nielsen and Cordell Eaton into this lineup. They’re young, but they’re very talented.”
Garnett and Nagel both agree this team’s grit and determination will be the ultimate separator between them and established Big 12 programs.
“Our number one goal is to be one of the first Western Wrestling Conference teams that’s going to bridge the gap to be right in the mix for a Big 12 championship,” Nagel said. “And we’re moving in the right direction with the young kids that we do have.”