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Wrestling Mania

January 27, 2011

By Jake Knabel, NAIA Communications & Sports Information Intern

In the summer of 2010, Beau Vest felt like the mat had literally been pulled out from under him. Luckily for Vest, he soon landed on his feet. He was tabbed as the new head wrestling coach at Midland (Neb.), a school that had not seen a wrestling program since 1982.

Vest worked wonders in year No. 1. The Warriors finished eighth at the National Championships and Matt Katusin (133 pounds), Eddie McCray (141 pounds), Kyle Conley (157 pounds) and Levi Roberson (HWT) became the school's first ever All-American wrestlers. Vest had successfully orchestrated the reintroduction of Midland wrestling in Fremont, Neb., just a few short months after transitioning from a school that had to close its doors.

"The big part was loyalty," Vest said. "Over half the guys had never stepped foot on campus at Midland before deciding to come. I had to talk to them about being patient and not panicking. I just had to tell them to relax. It was a stressful time, but also very rewarding that the guys from Dana (Neb.) were that loyal. There were a lot of hurdles and things the guys could have been wary about. Nobody really knew what Fremont was like or what the community was like."

The commitment and dedication of Midland wrestling has become infectious throughout the NAIA, where expansion is the name of the game. Thirty-nine schools sent qualifiers to the 2011 National Championships, up from 28 at the 2007 National Championships. New programs have popped up at places such as Midland and Shorter (Ga.) in 2010-11 and three new programs have begun competition in 2011-12: Bethany (Kan.), Indiana Tech and Truett-McConnell (Ga.).

"I think it's been really positive," Shorter head wrestling coach Josh Henson said. "The NAIA and collegiate wrestling are a very good mix. There aren't a whole lot of opportunities at the (NCAA) Division II and Division III levels overall. NAIA schools get a huge benefit from starting a wrestling program. I think it's been great."

Henson worked some magic of his own in getting his Shorter program off the ground. Nine Hawks qualified for the National Championships in 2011 and helped Shorter place a respectable 20th. Henson believes first-year programs should be realistic about their chances but should never be afraid of setting the bar high.

"Initially, I was upfront," Henson said. "I told them there were going to be growing pains. At the same time, you can't say that we're freshmen so we'll wait a year. You're never guaranteed another year. You have to give your best effort right away. Focus on the technical aspects and do things the right way."

Indiana Tech head wrestling coach Mike Ester faces a similar situation as he leads the Warriors in their inaugural season in Fort Wayne, Ind. Ester, who spent the previous five seasons as an assistant at NCAA Division III Trine University (Ind.), looks forward to the challenge of nurturing his own newly-formed wrestling squad.

"I look at it as a new baby," Ester said. "You get to raise it the way you want to. You take ownership of the program. It's an opportunity that people don't get very often."

Ester brings in a freshmen-laden roster combined with 10 transfers after combing the country for junior college wrestlers. It's a roster he will take to tournaments and put to the test against NCAA Division I teams. By the end of the season, he believes All-Americans will emerge. Ester's hard work has already generated excitement on campus as he hopes to bring Indiana Tech wrestling to prominence.

The same anticipation is brewing in Lindsborg, Kan., where Bethany implemented its own new wrestling program in 2011-12. Head wrestling coach Jacob Marrs has begun laying the foundation and drumming up support from another community happy to welcome NAIA wrestling. Marrs, who says his current opportunity allows him to "fulfill a lifelong dream," relishes the chance to inspire young men to better themselves.

Marrs and his assistant coach Cody Garcia were part of a staff at the University of Nebraska at Omaha that won the NCAA Division II National Championship in 2011. Both expect that success to carryover at the NAIA level.

"Our main objective is to have guys be better human beings and get degrees," Marrs said. "Coach Garcia and I are accustomed to winning national titles. I don't think we can set our sights on anything less no matter if it is your first year. First and foremost, we want to teach doing the right thing and success will follow."

Both Ester and Marrs understand the challenges facing their newly-minted squads. Each must make the best of surroundings that are still growing accustomed to a wrestling program. They also need to exercise patience in dealing with young rosters. But neither man seems particularly daunted.

"Every day brings different challenges," Marrs said. "I'm humbled on a daily basis. You're going to face adversity no matter where you're at."

If Ester or Marrs are looking for a young program to use as a model for success, Grand View would be a good place to start. Head coach Nick Mitchell got Viking wrestling up and running in 2009 and his crew looked like anything but a first-year team. Mitchell convinced junior college national champion Matt Burns (149 pounds) to come to Des Moines, Iowa, and he delivered with an NAIA individual national championship as the Vikings finished eighth in their first appearance at the NAIA National Championships.

"The biggest thing is that we never made excuses for ourselves," Mitchell said. "We didn't let ourselves off the hook. We didn't use being a young team as an excuse to take our lumps. We had a lot of guys go out and compete right away. We liked the underdog role. We took it personal."

After top-10 team finishes in its first three seasons, Grand View hopes to continue to grow and compete for national titles. However, as NAIA wrestling keeps expanding and adds additional programs, the competition gets stiffer.

"I'm excited about that," Mitchell said. "It's interesting. I'm coaching at Grand View, a place that's really expanding, while the NAIA seems to be moving in the same direction. You have better coaches coming in and more reputable programs. To see the NAIA as one of the only divisions growing, it makes you wonder how exciting the future could be. I think growth will continue. There is no reason it shouldn't. It's a no-lose situation to have wrestling at your school."