Another Individual Title Sees North Central step up the Division III men’s wrestling podium
The North Central college men’s wrestling team took another step up this year, literally, as they improved from a program best fifth place at nationals last year to fourth in 2023. They also won the CCIW Tournament for the first time since 2019. The high note of the season was undoubtedly senior Robbie Precin winning a second consecutive national championship at 133 lbs, the first Cardinal wrestler to win multiple NCAA titles.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I don’t really know how it feels other than just great,” said Precin, smiling. “Like, I don’t know really how else to say it. I mean, it’s a surreal thing to think about. And, you know, I think this year was a lot less pressure than last year, because I always wanted to be on top of the podium for my whole wrestling career, like just even from middle school and high school up until now. And when I did it last year, like I finally did it. And, you know, when people say, like defending a title, I don’t necessarily think that’s a thing when it comes to wrestling because no one’s going to take it away from me. You know, I got my national title last year. I’ll always be a national champion. And now it’s almost like I kind of thought of it as a bonus. So that’s why I didn’t have as much pressure.”
“Oh, so excited. Was so proud of him,” said head coach Zach Cook. “And just this year was a step up from last year’s championship and he just really expected to go out and dominate. And that’s what he did, you know, from scoring bonus points in the national tournament in the first few rounds to really it wasn’t close, his last two matches. But he’s really been the standard of this program for the last four years and and taken us from where we were when I first got here to where we’re at now in bringing home trophies and competing for titles and, you know, been a living example like, ‘Hey, I’ve done this and so can you.’ And so it’s just given the guys even more confidence, like, ‘Hey, I’m doing this, why not you?’”
The Cardinals sent a total of six wrestlers to nationals, with two additional All Americans along with Precin: sophomore Javen Estrada, who finished as runner up at 149 lbs, and freshman Christian Guzman, who finished third at 125 lbs.
“It was on my mind but I tried as much not to think about it and just keep going forward one match at a time,” said Estrada of becoming an All American by reaching the quarterfinals. “But it was definitely in the back of my head, just like one step closer, but try not to focus on it too much. It was more for me just finishing it off because I had a great first half freshman year, and the second half kind of just went out the water. So for me this year it was my focus and whatever, the season doesn’t really matter, and just one thing matters at the end. Just keep trying to get better for that one point no matter what.”
“I mean, it’s pretty cool,” said Guzman, with a look as if he still can’t believe it. “Because my high school team wasn’t very that good, so we didn’t really get like any top in the state or anything. So being a part of a program that’s top four in the nation is kind of cool. But being a freshman and getting third, I mean, I’m very hard on myself, so third is okay, but now next year I’m getting ready to win the thing.”
Zach Cook takes the helm as North Central men’s wrestling head coach
In addition to new, younger wrestlers rising to the top of their ranks, the team also had a shift in leadership as Zach Cook, who previously served as an assistant to Joe Norton for both the men’s and women’s teams, was named men’s head coach ahead of the season. It might not have been a big change for the wrestlers, but both they and Norton knew he was up for the job.
“He brought the idea to me and I was kind of like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ and he was adamant like, ‘Yep, this is what needs to happen,’” Cook said of a conversation with Norton. “And so I was like, ‘Alright, man, if you’re if this is what you want.’ So I was excited about the opportunity and, you know, both programs are fun to work with, but just really excited with, you know, taking this men’s team and building on what, you know, has already been accomplished, at least for the last three years I’d been here and a part of it. So I was really excited about the opportunity.”
“I think he deserves to be head coach,” said Precin. “There’s nothing bad to say about that guy. I mean, I love Zach. He’s just a great coach. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys. Joe and Cook, I think just them together, just great. They make wrestling fun. I loved wrestling even more when I came here.”
“All the coaches are pretty consistent on a daily basis, so not much change besides the title,” added Estrada. “But he’s such a great coach, such a great guy that every workout and every day with them is just it’s so, you know what to expect.”
“The one thing about North Central is the coaches always kept in contact with me,” Guzman remembered about his recruitment. “And the personality that they have, Joe and Cook, they’re both kind of out-there extroverts. So when I came out of visit, I kind of fell in love with the environment and they kind of just drug me in here. It was kind of cool.”
A legend departs, but a young roster provides optimism for the future
Precin aside, the team’s roster is remarkably young and set up for success going forward. Thus, in addition to pursuing another title, Precin knew how valuable he was as a leader to help those underclassmen see that they can achieve the same thing he has.
“I just really want to show how or what hard work is like,” said Precin. “I wanted to push myself even more just to just prove to know what it takes to become a national champion. You know, I want to influence a lot of these younger guys, and I want them to win a national title as a team, not just as a team, but also individuals. So I want to keep that legacy going and I just want them to keep that in mind.”
“The way I think about it is some people have the mentality that freshmen are just here to get better their first year,” said Guzman. “But I kind of came expecting that I want to win. So that was the main thing with me. And I saw, like other freshmen last year that were on the starting lineup. So I was like, ‘Why not me?’”
“Trying to reach them all individually is something I love about this job, but it’s very challenging and will stay up too late in the night thinking about how I can reach one kid or how I can make one kid better,” Cook said. “That makes the overall program better. And that could be from Robby Precin all the way down to maybe the worst guy on our team. How are we going to get all those guys better that’s going to make this program overall better? So it’s very challenging. But I love that aspect of coaching this team and college wrestling.”
A team national championship remains the ultimate goal for this team, and they feel they are on the path to making it happen. With every new success, whether a teammate winning an individual national championship or younger wrestlers becoming All Americans for the first time, there is growing confidence that together they can achieve anything.
“I think they just believed it was something we talked about, but now they truly believe it,” Cook said of the team viewing a championship as a possibility. “And that’s the expectation is, you know, I’m trying to win an individual title. This team is trying to win an overall national championship. And it’s not so much as hope anymore, but true belief that, hey, I’m going to do this. Everybody wants to say it, but then to actually go out there and do it under the lights, you know, when the pressure moments are on, that’s something that I think that we’re there now. And now it’s going to continue to bring in motivated guys like that and develop guys on this team and in this program to go out and win individual championships for themselves.”
“National title is obviously, thinking about it since the day we got back, just trying to figure out how we can all get better every day to these points of the season where we don’t necessarily have to be in a room every day and just coming together as a team and focusing on one goal because Robbie is huge part of our team. So we’ve got a lot of young guys, a pretty deep roster. So just next guy up, figuring it out. It’s our time, I feel like.”
“Everything about this college wrestling stuff, it’s really just everything I’m going to miss about it,” reflected Precin. “Whatever I’m thinking about doing in the future, I mean, I’m just glad I got this opportunity to be with such a great group of guys, and I couldn’t be more thankful.”