There is something good happening in a noisy room tucked away in the basement of Weinbergen Hall.
Back where very few even lay an eye, in a room encased with brick and typically blasting hard rock music through its lone door, is perhaps Dickinson State’s most consistent program of the past decade — its wrestling team.
This year, the Blue Hawks look like a team that could find its footing early.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been on such a talented team, as far as not just wrestling but dedication and focus,” said senior Jesse Hellinger, who is ranked No. 11 in the NAIA and third in the North Region at 184 pounds.
The Blue Hawks enter the year ranked No. 10 in the NAIA and stand a good chance of moving up as the season wears on.
With a talented and deep group of returners and what coaches and athletes alike believe to be their best recruiting class in a few years, the Blue Hawks appear primed to make a run at another NAIA North Region title.
That’s four months away, however.
Right now, the Blue Hawks are still tangling with each other. They’ll find out a great deal about their team today at their wrestle-offs during a trip to Hettinger High School.
The team is hosting a youth clinic at 5 p.m. and has its annual Blue-Gray dual at 7 p.m. at Roberts-Reinke Gymnasium.
“It’ll be exciting to see how things pan out,” DSU head coach Thadd O’Donnell said.
The Blue Hawks seemed primed for resurgence into the upper echelon of NAIA wrestling. They’ve spent most weeks ranked in the middle of the top 20 since ending the 2008-09 season at No. 3. DSU hasn’t had a team quite like this in the past three years though.
The Blue Hawks have six nationally ranked wrestlers and a handful of others that could easily work their way up. There’s junior Bryden Lazaro (third at 125 pounds), senior Brad Steele (third at 149), senior Jose Lopez (third at heavyweight), senior Kevin Keisler (12th at 197), sophomore Clayton Steinmetz (15th at 133) and Hellinger.
Along with them, there is a deep and experienced core of returners, including two-time NAIA all-American Cameron Schrempp at 174 pounds. He will wrestle unattached until the second semester because of eligibility rules and currently doesn’t count toward DSU’s team ranking.
In the same boat as Schrempp is 157-pound sophomore Tyler Johnson, a former California high school state champion.
“Right now, we’re looking really good as far as competition in the room,” Hellinger said. “Coach brought in a really good group of young guys who are coming in and being competitive with us.”
Steele, who is wrestling at 149 now but could drop to 141 later in the season, said even he is seeing a push from his own teammates — though he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“It’s not so much that national pressure but in the room, making sure you can keep up with the guys in there,” said Steele, a Beach native. “They’ll push me where I need to be. One of them may step up too, it’s hard to say.”
O’Donnell said much of what DSU does this season depends on health, which he says can become a “fast factor.”
New qualifying standards for the NAIA national tournament — wrestlers can no longer qualify at regular-season tournaments, only their regional tournament in March — has forced O’Donnell to revamp the team’s schedule.
It is heavy with duals and more pre-Christmas events than usual. They open the regular season next Saturday at the Dakota Wesleyan Open in Mitchell, S.D. DSU has six scheduled duals, along with three dual tournaments — including the NAIA National Duals on Jan. 12 in Springfield, Ill.
“In the past, we didn’t need that,” O’Donnell said. “We used those tournaments to get our lineup set. Now, we’ve got to be ready to go right out of the chute. That’s a big change for us.” Yet it’s a change that this group seems prepared to handle. “It’s kind of fun and exciting to see the way it’s coming out,” Steele said with a smile. “It’s exciting to have the guys we have. We work hard and we’re never done.”