The North Idaho College wrestling team is out to prove that the 2007-08 season was an aberration.
The storied program, which boasts 13 NJCAA championships, slumped to its second-worst finish at the national tournament, placing 11th.
“If I can keep us where we belong, then I’m doing my job,” said Pat Whitcomb, who is beginning his 12th season. “This is a big year. We want to find out if we used to be a good program or we’re still the program that’s talked about. We don’t want our program to be talked about in the past tense.”
As in, NIC used to be a national power.
NIC has won three national titles under Whitcomb, a former two-time NJCAA champ at his alma mater when he wrestled for John Owen, the man who established the school as the national junior college power. The Cardinals won eight national championships under Owen.
NIC’s worst national finish came in 1979 when it was 20th, one year after Owen coached the Cards to his first national championship.
The problem with NIC’s finish last year is that Whitcomb didn’t see it coming. He had seven in the quarterfinals and one win away from earning All-American status.
“We went 0-7 in the semifinals,” Whitcomb said. “In our final 15 matches, we were 1-14.”
This after NIC captured its seventh straight Region 18 title two weeks earlier.
“We thought we had the team where we needed to be two weeks before nationals,” Whitcomb said. “We thought we had them where they needed to be two hours (before the semifinals).”
So Whitcomb and his team are out to show that NIC hasn’t fallen off the national map.
The early results support what could be a huge turnaround. NIC is off to a 4-0 start, including an impressive 25-13 win over NCAA Division I Northern Colorado.
NIC returns three national qualifiers in Tim McGoldrick, a sophomore who is dropping from 149 pounds to 141, sophomore D.J. May (165) and sophomore Steve Vasquez (174-184).
Whitcomb signed the five blue-chip recruits he sought and they’re in his starting lineup. Jeremy Bommarito (149) is one of four brought in from Michigan. The other three are from the same high school, South Haven: Drakkar Klose (165), Kamron Jackson (174) and Celic Bell (184).
Sophomore Lucas Chesher of Central Valley returns at 157. He posted a 28-6 record last year before he was ruled academically ineligible for the second half of the season.
“He could have been an All-American last year,” Whitcomb said. “I think he’s driven by last year and has some unfinished business. He’s a different kid.”
Rounding out the starting lineup are freshman Thomas Godby (125); sophomore Lester Brown (133), a two-time state champ from Lake Stevens, Wash.; freshman Rudi Burtschi (197); and freshman John Forrester (heavyweight).
Freshman Ian McGoldrick, Tim’s brother, is battling Bommarito at 149.
“I see them both in the lineup – somehow, some way – by the end of the year,” Whitcomb said. “We could always have changes. You lose kids because of injuries or grades or social reasons. Somebody gets homesick and leaves at Christmas. You lose kids for a lot of reasons.”
That’s why Whitcomb is pleased to have 40 in his practice room – 16 on scholarship and 24 as walk-ons. It’s a dozen more than NIC had last year.
NIC is two deep at each weight and three deep in a couple of weights. The depth includes some quality athletes Whitcomb plans to redshirt.
Whitcomb thinks he could field a lineup with his No. 2 kids and place in the top 10 at nationals and make a run at the top three. That is an indication of what he thinks of his starters.
NIC was ranked fourth in the preseason poll last week.
“This team, on paper, is much better than my first team (1998) that won a national title,” Whitcomb said. “We have to re-establish that we’re the program to beat in the nation.”
NIC hosts the national-qualifying Region 18 tournament Feb. 14.
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