5 years ago it looked like the Northern State wrestling program was toast. But Rocky Burkett took over a team of 7 wrestlers and last week all that work paid off when they were ranked 17th in Division II. The turnaround is really remarkable.
Wrestling and a love for the outdoors convinced California native Kenny Jones to come to Northern State. "I liked the guys that were on the team at the time, all the hunting and fishing. Looked like they had a wrestling program that was just getting started. Yeah, it was at the bottom, but you kinda had to have faith that it was going to get somewhere." NSU Senior Kenny Jones says.
Building from the ground up is one thing, rising from the grave is another.
In March of 2015 Northern State suspended it's wrestling program for the next two seasons to determine if it would be viable economically and competitivaly moving forward. Financial support from Aberdeen and across the country came, and the program was reinstated a month later.
But that was only half the battle. The Wolves had been in the basement of the NSIC for some time, and making them competitive again fell on former Aberdeen High School coach Rocky Burkett.
"Obviously enrollment is a big thing at small schools. We've grown our roster size over 30. Our guys have been performing in the classroom too. I think we led our athletic department for men's sports, we had the highest GPA this semester." Burkett says.
Last year the Northern had its first winning season in more than a decade. This season they're once again on pace for that, breaking in to the Division Two national rankings at #17 in the country.
"We kind of set a culture. Every year, being there, I think it gets better and better. And the support in our town is unreal. It just kind of drives you a little bit more." Jones says.
Burkett is quick to point out that his program is far from a finished product, with plenty of work still ahead. Yet the task certainly doesn't seem as daunting....
"We still talk about that (when the program was suspended) every so often and be like 'hey man, be blessed with the opportunity that you have because there are programs out there still that are losing the battle and getting dropped." Burkett says.
....when you've already risen from the dead.