Building a strong wrestling program is Chuck Pipher's goal at Colorado Mesa
PUEBLO — Colorado Mesa University wrestling coach Chuck Pipher looks at the now-defunct University of Nebraska-Omaha program as the measuring stick.
The UNO Mavericks became the team everyone was shooting for, winning the past three NCAA Division II national team titles and five of the past six.
“My vision is to build a program that simulates the UNO program,” Pipher said. “That’s one of the reasons we brought in (former UNO wrestler and CMU assistant coach) Austin Boehm. I wanted to bring somebody from that team in here. I picked his brain.”
UNO announced it was dropping the program before the team returned home from nationals last year as the school transitioned to Division I status in its remaining sports.
Former UNO coach Mike Denny was hired to start the Maryville (Mo.) University program, and in his first season, produced the school’s first All-American during the NCAA Division II nationals this past weekend at Massari Arena.
Two Colorado Mesa wrestlers earned All-America status Saturday. Chester Granard and Nick Petersen became the Mavericks’ first wrestling All-Americans since 2009, when Chase Walker placed fifth. Mesa has qualified at least one individual for nationals in five of the six years since the program was reinstated.
“I feel really good to have five qualifiers and all of them back (next season),” Pipher said. “I feel great about it, but if you would’ve asked me six years ago, would it take six years to get there, no. I figured three or four, but we didn’t go the junior college route.
“To me, you don’t build your alumni around junior college base recruits. It’s good to bring in a few here and there, but we like to take our guys and develop them from their freshman year.”
Mesa had wrestling several years ago when it was a junior college program. The Mavericks had seven national champions from 1960-64. As Mesa became a four-year school, the wrestling program continued it success until it was dropped after the 1990-91 season. In that final season, Mesa took third in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and had two RMAC champions.
The Mavericks have gone through the growing pains of building a program that hadn’t had college wrestling for 21 years.
“With the support we have in town, it’s huge now,” Pipher said. “We’re finally getting the dual atmosphere where I dreamed it would be. Wrestling has been gone so long, it’s changed so much. If you haven’t kept up with it, it has different rules.
“There were years you could hear a pin drop in there. Those were also the years, we win one match the whole dual. Now, as a coach, you get involved in the matches. You want to get after the officials and let your kids know you’re sticking up for them. It’s tough to question calls when you’re down 12-3.”
However, the Mavericks improved as they gained college experience, and this year broke into the national rankings, going as high as 16th.
The Mavericks took another significant step this season, defeating RMAC rivals Adams State and Western State for the first time. At the time, Adams State was ranked No. 9 in the nation, Western State No. 18.
“It’s huge to beat Western State and Adams State in the same year,” Pipher said. “They are so traditionally strong. To beat those teams has helped tremendously. We’re getting more recruit questionnaires in. We’ve battled with their tradition and they are similar colleges we recruit against.”
Pipher started a popular fundraising event with the annual steak and crab fest at a home football game each fall. Money raised from that event boosts scholarship dollars and helps pay assistant coaches.
“We’ve kept up with the raising of the tuition,” Pipher said. “As a coach, you’re always greedy for more money, but the administration has been very supportive and helped us with the scholarships.”
Pipher has brought in three assistant coaches who have all been All-Americans in Chris Frejie, Charlie Alexander and Boehm. Daren Hockett and Dan Burke are former wrestlers assisting Pipher.
“Chuck has done a great job with his assistant coaches,” CMU Athletic Director Butch Miller said. “He did a great job of getting guys that were in collegiate wrestling. Charlie Alexander and Chris Frejie know what it takes to get here and be successful here.
“He’s a good recruiter. He’s getting kids that fit his style and personality. His room is getting tough. He redshirted kids that have a chance to make it here.”
Pipher isn’t just about winning on the mat, though.
“My ultimate goal as well is to be competitive each year, to where you’re in the top 10 each year, but also make good young men, good family people and getting degrees,” he said. “Above and beyond that is the academic side of it, to get the Academic Progress Rate high.”