Cardinals Wrestling Makes History
In ninety years of North Central wrestling, there has never been a more successful one than 2022. On the men’s side, the Cardinals achieved their highest ever team finish placing third at the NCAA Division III National Championships, with two individual national champions and two additional All Americans. But the North Central men’s wrestling team doesn’t see this year as the mountaintop, but rather an important and memorable next step up and forward as they hope to continue to climb.
“It just means that we’re getting there, it shows that we’re making progress,” said head coach Joe Norton. “We’re finishing higher than we ever have before. Still not quite where we want to be, obviously the goal is national title with both teams but we’re the first to ever trophy with both in the same year. It’s kind of just another step along the way but it’s a concrete thing like hey you’re doing it and you’re getting there.”
The Cardinals never had an individual NCAA wrestling national champion until the afternoon of March 12, when junior Robbie Precin took home the 133-pound title. It was the perfect crowning achievement in an incredible season, during which Precin went a perfect 38-0 in duel matches.
“All the hard work really paid off and I was definitely really looking to get that, but once it happened it was a very surreal moment,” said Precin. “I think there is a certain amount of pressure that is off now but the way I’m doing things it’s not gonna stop. I’m gonna just keep doing what I’m doing and that’s that.”
His teammate Cody Baldridge is familiar with that pressure, having won the NWCA National Championship last year when the NCAA canceled it’s spring championship season. But now Baldrdige has an NCAA title of his own, winning the 197 pound championship and the Cardinals’ second of the day and in their history as well as becoming a three-time All American.
“I definitely felt like there was a target on my back,” Baldridge said. “The pressure was definitely on this year compared to previous year, because before it felt like I was trying to prove myself, constantly trying to beat the best guy, and then winning the year before and coming back I definitely felt that pressure of now I’ve gotta really strap in and get it done this time.”
Baldridge has amassed a staggering 106-19 record over his four years as a Cardinal, and what could be his final collegiate match was a classic as he held off Jack Heldt of Wabash College for a narrow 3-2 victory and celebrated with a now trademark backflip.
“I remember I looked up in the crowd and I saw not just North Central cheering on but a bunch of other teams and all that kind of took me off guard,” said Baldridge. “I turned to the coaches and I just embraced them, kind of an in the moment thing, just happy to be there, just that feeling of excitement it was just so much. You don’t even know how to explain it all sometimes.”
“We’ve had wrestling here since 1932 and I know we were NAIA for a number years,” Norton said. “Ed Jackson was a national champ back in 1969 in the NAIA and then Cody did it last year in the canceled year for the NWCA tournament, but Robbie winning the first NCAA title we’ve ever had and then 45 minutes later Cody winning the second? That was really cool.”
“It feels great,” added Precin. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys, coaches, teammates. They have a really big support for me and it feels great and I love being part of it.”
Continuing to Look to the Future
But with Precin returning to defend his title and a raft of younger talent, North Central wrestling has plenty more where this came from. Sophomores Alex Villar (149 lbs) and Robby Bates (285 lbs) also attained All American status, with freshman Javen Estrada also qualifying for nationals to complete his 18-pin season which tied Ed Jackson’s school record from 1969. For those like Baldridge, Norton and Precin who’ve seen this team’s progress up close, they’re grateful for the experiences and excited for the future.
“Being on this team and seeing it become successful as much as it has and still growing, it’s made me excited being part of the program because it makes me feel like you’re doing the right thing,” said Baldrige. “You’re training hard, you’re taking all the right steps and seeing that progression go higher and higher.”
“It shows that we’re doing it with more than just two guys,” Norton said. “I think an easy thing to say would be ‘well Robbie and Cody were really good recruits coming in’ right? Like I said they’ve gotten so much better. But when you have other guys do it and Robby Bates goes out and beats the undefeated number-one seed in the first round, when Alex Villar’s coming in and he’s got three more years of eligibility left and he’s already taking fourth in the country, you’re showing that we can do it and it’s not a flash in the pan kind of thing with Cody and Robbie. Bates and Villar will be guys who are contenders for national titles right away and a couple others, so it shows that it’s a program-wide thing not a couple of isolated incidents where you just have a couple talented guys.”
“I think I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing,” Precin said. “I know I train hard and I know it pays off and it feels good, so I’m just gonna keep doing that.”