Three wrestlers from Western Wyoming Community College placed in the top five in their respective weight classes at the NJCAA National Tournament in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Saturday.
Freshman Cole Verner, of Green River, competed against Iowa Central Community College’s Alex DelaCruz in the championship match at 125 lbs. Verner had defeated three opponents over two days after an opening-round bye to punch his ticket to the title match. Verner won those earlier rounds with two decisions and a technical fall. But in the hard-fought title round the decision would go against Verner, as DelaCruz prevailed 8-6 and Verner finished second in the nation in his weight class.
“It was down to the wire,” Mustang Coach Art Castillo said on Saturday. “The call at the end could have gone either way. It didn’t go Cole’s way, but I am super-proud of him. He’s so fun to coach because he never, ever stops wrestling. Being a Sweetwater County guy, this is a big deal for him and for a lot of people back home."
Verner was also voted by the coaches as recipient of the NJCAA National Championship Joseph A. Rockenback Sportsmanship Award for 2016.
At 141 lbs., sophomore Jaydon Rogers, of West Haven, Utah. just missed competing for a national title when he lost in the semifinals to Iowa Central’s Jason Alfau, who would go on to win the title. But Rogers rebounded to win two matches in the consolation bracket for a 5-1 tournament record and 3rd Place honors in the nation in his weight class.
“Jaydon competed in a really deep weight class,” Castillo said. “We’ve told him that if he can wrestle for the entire match, the whole seven minutes, that he could compete with anybody in the nation. And that is exactly what he did.
“He’s a sophomore, so he won’t be back for us next year, but there will definitely be some four-year schools in the market for his services next season,” Castillo added.
At 174 lbs., Kaden Campbell rebounded from a quarterfinal loss to Dominic Ruggiero, of Rowan College at Gloucester, to claim 5th Place in the nation in his weight class following two victories in the consolation bracket. Campbell was 4-2 for the tournament, and he avenged his loss to Ruggiero by defeating him in their fifth-place consolation match.
“He showed some true grit out there, which is what we’ve always looked for from him,” Castillo said. “Kaden finished fifth in the nation with a bummed-up shoulder.”
Castillo said Campbell’s nagging shoulder issues had bothered him the last month or so of the regular season but did not impede his determination to succeed. The coach recalled that last season Campbell had expressed some doubts about continuing with the program, but Castillo encouraged him to persist. Saturday’s strong finish capped a terrific season for the Roosevelt, Utah native.
Other wrestlers who competed at Nationals for the Mustangs, but did not place, were redshirt sophomore Arthur Tomax, of Kearns, Utah, at 133 pounds, and redshirt freshman Jake Van Valkenburg, of Ogden, Utah, at 285 pounds. Castillo praised both wrestlers and noted that they had performed well against tough competition.
Of Tomax, who is in his third and final season in Castillo’s program, the coach noted that he has made significant strides as a student-athlete during his time at Western.
“Now he’s a national qualifier and he’s going to graduate with two degrees and a certificate,” Castillo said. “I am super-proud of him.”
Castillo said that Van Valkenburg also sustained minor injury during the Nationals but competed well against quality opponents. He said the heavyweight will return next season as a core component of what promises to be another nationally competitive squad.
“It’s been a wild year,” Castillo said. “We’d like to thank all of our fans and everyone in the community who supported us this season and came to our home duals, even though we only had two of them. We’re hoping to have more next year.
“We’re going to give everybody a couple weeks off, and then after Spring Break we’ll get them back in the weight room and start getting ready for next season.”