Since joining the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) eight months ago, St. Andrews University athletics have undergone a transitional phase as the school’s various sports programs became acclimated with new teams and competition.
And after enjoying their most decorated season to date in 2011-12, the St. Andrews wrestling Knights have welcomed the move to the NAIA with open arms, as they’ve continued to build towards long-term sustained success.
Entering the 2013 calendar year, the Knights find themselves the 28th-ranked team in the nation, marking the first time in school history that SAU has had a sports program nationally ranked by the NAIA.
“There’s a lot of talent on this team, and I think we could compete with some NCAA division-I schools if given the chance,” said head coach Joe Baranik, who was the driving force behind creating the Knights’ wrestling program some seven years ago. “The proof is in the pudding, and now we have to put it all together for the rest of this season. But I know we can move up higher in the rankings if we prove ourselves on the mat.”
The wrestling Knights began their year of firsts Nov. 7 against perennial opponent Belmont Abbey by hosting the first outdoor wrestling event in the program’s seven-year history. The Knights would ultimately lose that season-opening match 28-11, but the team later rebounded with a convincing 47-10 victory over East Carolina University, a NCAA division-I opponent.
In terms of individual leaders, three Knights’ wrestlers currently lead the way in terms of pins: Steffan Baker (165), Kody Getkin (149) and Russell Lindsay (174) share the team-lead with three.
And with the team forging new territory in the NAIA ranks, perhaps it’s fitting that one of their own has received national attention as well. St. Andrews 125-pound junior Chauncey Foster not only leads the team with an 8-2 overall record, but currently holds the #10 ranking on NAIA’s top 125-pound wrestlers in the country as of press time.
“The ranking motivates me to work even harder, because we’re nowhere near done with the season yet,” said Foster, who has ambitions of becoming a national qualifier and All-American by season’s end. “When I go out there, I don’t think about winning or losing. I just concentrate on getting better in practice and in every match.”
When St. Andrews first became affiliated with the NAIA, one of the primary reasons for doing so was the five core “Championship of Character” values that the organization emphasized for schools under the NAIA umbrella. They are integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship and servant leadership, with an overall focus placed on academics over athletic accomplishments.
According to Baranik, several of his wrestlers have embodied the NAIA student athlete philosophy, with seven of his wrestlers currently maintaining a 3.0 GPA or higher. In addition to climbing as high as 15th overall in the NAIA national rankings for 141-pound wrestlers, senior co-captain Sterling Perry also has a 3.8 GPA at the university.
“It’s a testament to this team’s attitude and dedication to both the mat and the classroom,” Baranik said. “We are fortunate to have some really good kids, leaders and citizens on this team.”
Though the move to the NAIA has spelled changes for all involved, the Knights saw few, if any, deviations from the wrestling schedule they participated in as NCAA division-II competitors. That will all change in 2013, however, as the team will be tested by the best that the Appalachian Athletic Conference (AAC) has to offer en route to national qualifiers scheduled to take place Feb. 16.
But that hasn’t removed the confidence that Foster and the rest of the St. Andrews Knights possess as they look to further add to the wrestling program’s seven-year build.
“We have some guys returning to our lineup so I really like where this team is at right now,” Foster said. Returning wrestlers include 174/184 pounder Richard Manwarren and heavyweight Denzel Vaughn, the latter of which joined current assistant coach Justin Hoover as the first All-American wrestlers in SAU history last season.
“With that said, I think we can win a lot of matches this year,” he said.