Campbell wrestling growth measured in multiples of five

Led by All-American Nathan Kraisser, the Camels have risen to historic heights in just three seasons under coach Cary Kolat, a former national champion and Olympian

Justin Hoch— Sachs photography
Campbell wrestling coach Cary Kolat congratulates Nathan Kraisser after the senior defeated Southern Illinois' Freddie Rodriguez to earn All-American honors at 125 pounds during last weekend's NCAA championship meet in St. Louis

BUIES CREEK, N.C. — There are any number of ways to measure the development of an athletic program over the years. For the Campbell wrestling team, it’s an actual number: five.That’s how many wrestlers the Camels had available for dual meets during coach Cary Kolat’s first season on the job in 2014-15. They went winless in those meets, primarily because it takes 10 weight classes to fill out a complete college lineup.Just two years later Kolat hasn’t just filled out his lineup, he’s filled it with enough talent to hang a Southern Conference championship banner at Carter Gym.And the number five is just as relevant. For a much more positive reason.That’s because it now represents the number of wrestlers the Camels sent to the NCAA championship meet in St. Louis last week. Included among that group is senior Nathan Kraisser, who by winning four matches became the first All-American in Campbell wrestling history.”It’s like Roger Bannister before he broke the four-minute mark in the mile,” Kolat, who earned All-America honors himself in the mid-1990s while wrestling at both Penn State and Lock Haven. He was also a two-time national champion and World Cup silver medalist who represented the U.S. at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.”Every program has to go through the same pains,” he said. “The first thing was trying to win a team conference title, which we did. Then it’s about getting as many guys as you can to nationals. The most we’d ever taken before was two and we got five. Now it’s seeing a guy finally getting on the podium. The ultimate goal is to help these guys become individual national champions, but every step is a big milestone in this program’s history.”Kraisser helped the Camels take their most significant step yet by finishing eighth in the competition at 125 pounds. The top eight places are recognized as All-Americans.The former North Carolina transfer won his first match with a 3-0 decision on Jake Gromacki of Clarion before losing to Iowa’s Thomas Gilman in the second round. He bounced back from that defeat to win three straight bouts in the consolation bracket, including a 4-1 decision on Southern Illinois’ Freddie Rodriguez to earn his spot on the podium and lock down his All-American status.”I tried not to come in with too much expectation, because I feel like that’s when I would tighten up and not wrestle to the best of my ability,” Kraisser said. “I just tried to go in there and have fun. It was my last tournament ever, so I just let loose and wrestled like I knew how. That really paid off, because it was the best I’d wrestled all year.”His victory against Rodriguez was especially sweet, since he lost a close decision to his rival in the championship round of the conference meet two weeks earlier.”I had lost to that guy before, so it was more of the mental game there,” Kraisser said of the match against Rodriguez. “The crowd was loud that round and I had to believe I could beat him. My body was a little beat up. That made it tough to get up and get a handle on it.”In addition to Kraisser, the other Camels to qualify for nationals were freshman Joshua Heil at 141 pounds, sophomore Quentin Perez at 165, senior Ville Heino at 184 and his younger brother Jere Neino, a sophomore who competes in the heavyweight division.Heino was the only other Campbell wrestler to win a match in St. Louis, earning a 5-3 decisions on both Jared Johnson of Chattanooga and William Miller of Edinboro, with the second coming in sudden death.As a team member who got in on the ground floor of the building process with Kolat, Kraisser said he’s as proud of his teammates’ accomplishments as much as he is of his own.”It’s awesome to see how far we’ve already come in just the three years Coach Kolat has been on the job, to see the program grow and see new guys coming in that are hungry and want to do well,” he said. “They helped push me to become an All-American. I want to do everything I can to help this school. It’s been great to me and helped me achieved. Being an All-American is cool, but it’s even more awesome to be the start of something — something big, hopefully.”Even though Kraisser and Ville Heino will be graduating, Kolat is confident the best is yet to come for Campbell wrestling. That’s not just blind optimism, either. Other than the two seniors, everyone else that made significant contributions to this year’s success were either freshmen or sophomores — including Kraisser’s kid brother Austin at 157.”We were somewhat of a mixed team, but we were deeper on the younger side,” Kolat said. “We felt like we recruited the right kids for our program. The freshman, over the course of a typical college season, you’ll see them develop and turn a corner around January and February, and that’s what we saw.”Kolat is hoping that their success and the Camels’ best ever showing at nationals will only help attract even more talent to his growing program.”It’s a big achievement for us,” he said. “And it shows every recruit around the country that you can be successful at Campbell.”