By Sara Waite, JA
The return of the Northeastern Junior College wrestling program after a decades-long hiatus has been marked by a challenging year, says head coach Greg Barner.
Barner joined the newly revived program in May after two years as the graduate assistant wrestling coach at Briar Cliff University in Iowa. That late start put him behind the 8-ball, but he said the challenge that presented "makes it fun."
A whirlwind of recruiting put the team over 30 wrestlers at the start of the season, and Barner said they had to cut down those numbers to "find the right fit" for the new program. But, he was quick to point out, they brought in students who are performing well academically — with several holding grade point averages over 3.5, and two with a perfect 4.0 — adding that "it's not just about doing well on the mat."
When Northeastern's wrestling program ended in the late 1970s, it was the only was the only sport at the college that had won National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national titles. Barner said that the long-ago success does add some outside pressure to perform well, but he said feeling some pressure and facing challenges is good both for the team as a whole and for the individual wrestlers.
Standouts so far this season have been A.J. Curtis, a sophomore from Aurora wrestling at 157 pounds, and Justin Anderson, a 165-lb. freshman from Greeley, whom Barner said lead the team in wins.
Barner is also looking forward to seeing Morgan Fogg hit the mat for the Plainsmen at 125 lbs. The freshman from Loveland has been unable to compete due to injury so far this season, but Barner said he's been "whooping up" on teammates in practice and will make his first appearance at the Plainsman Duals Saturday. "It'll be nice to see what he can actually do in competition," Barner said.
The Plainsman Duals will be the team's second home appearance this season, after hosting a dual with Northwest Kansas Tech on Nov. 12, 2016, when they also held an alumni day for former Northeastern wrestlers.
The meet this weekend will pit NJC wrestlers against teams from Otero Junior College, Northwest College, Western Wyoming Community College and Air Force Prep in a round robin-style tournament. Barner said the Plainsmen have faced most of these teams earlier in the season, and "we've gotten a lot better" over the past three months.
"It's a good measuring stick for us," as the team prepares for Regionals on Feb. 11, when they will see many of the same wrestlers, Barner said.
Barner said he's not concerned about a big home crowd at the meet Saturday, focusing more in this first year on taking care of the students "and taking care of business." But he admits that work has already been done to prepare for next year, with recruiting starting last August and at least one commitment so far for next year's team and a couple of other possibilities.
But right now, Barner said, they are focused on finishing this season. There are five wrestlers they expect will perform well at Regionals and make it to Nationals, and, he added, there are others with an outside chance. "Anything could happen," he said.
The Plainsman Duals are scheduled to start at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Bank of Colorado Event Center.