BY SETH ROMSA TRIBUNE SPORTS WRITER
Courtesy of the Powell Tribune
After a couple years of rebuilding, the Northwest College wrestling program proved it still belongs at the top of the NJCAA wrestling conversation. NWC battled through a season unlike any other to bring home a national champion, four All-Americans and finished 10th as a team at the NJCAA National Tournament this past weekend in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Making his way to the peak over the weekend was Aziz Fayzullaev at 174 pounds, finishing his season undefeated and becoming the first national champion for the Trappers since Nodir Safarov at 126 pounds in 2018.
Fayzullaev started his title charge against Lucas Henderson from Indian Hills, winning the match by pin at the 55 second mark.
He continued strong into the Round of 16, finishing with another pin, this time against Jared Checkly from Southwestern Michigan at the 2:21 mark.
In the quarterfinals, Fayzullaev used four takedowns in the third period in a dominant major decision 13-5 over Melton Powe from Cowley College.
Heading into the semifinals Fayzullaev came up against a familiar foe in Christian Smoot from Western Wyoming.
Fayzullaev led 2-1 after the first period, but two reversals by Smoot in the second period matched the three points scored by Fayzullaev and the bout was tied at five heading into the final period.
Fayzullaev chose bottom and earned an escape early, before scoring a takedown with 36 seconds left to help secure the victory. Smoot earned a late escape to make the final score 8-6 — sending Fayzullaev to the championship round.
In the final round, he came up against Jake Stiles from Harper College.
Fayzullaev had a 2-1 lead after the first period after a takedown and Stiles got an escape.
Stiles chose bottom in the second period and earned an escape, but no points were scored by either wrestler after that early escape and the bout went into the third period tied 2-2.
Fayzullaev chose neutral, and Stiles was hit with a stall warning early in the period.
Stiles earned a takedown with 58 seconds left, and just had to remain in control to win the match. Coach Jim Zeigler challenged the takedown, but it was not successful.
Over those 58 seconds Stiles was hit with two stalling calls, tying the match at four and sending it into a sudden victory extra period.
“I knew when it went to overtime there was no way he was going to lose,” Zeigler said. “You could see the determination on his face he went right after him, there was no stopping him and it was beautiful.”
Fayzullaev earned the takedown in 17 seconds and claimed the title at 174 pounds.
In addition to Fayzullaev, the Trappers earned three more All-American honors at the national tournament.
The second Trapper earning All-American honors was Bobur Berdiyorov at 141 pounds.
Berdiyorov won his first matchup in a tight 10-9 decision over Jazen Brown from Labette, before earning a 9-4 decision over Jaxon Johnson in the Round of 16.
In the quarterfinals Berdiyorov continued his improvement over the rounds, finishing with an 18-5 major decision over Cole Holien from Ridgewater to advance to the semifinal round.
In the semifinal Berdiyorov was unable to overcome a pair of takedowns by Easton Taylor from Pratt and lost 6-2, dropping him to the consolation semifinals.
Berdiyorov lost that matchup to Matthew Lewis from Indian Hills by pin (2:05) which sent him to the fifth place match.
Berdiyorov finished with a 1:26 pin in that placement match against Malachi Bordovsky of Iowa Western, earning a top five finish at the national tournament.
“Bobur did not wrestle his best tournament … I feel like he should have been in the finals and could have won the tournament,” Zeigler said. “Him and Aziz are very close and I think that motivates Aziz to push harder.”
The next All-American came at 149 pounds for the Trappers, where Brady Lowry also battled his way to a fifth place finish.
Lowry started with a 9-0 major decision over Channing Warner from Northeastern, and a pin of David Platt from Itasca (1:11) in the Round of 16.
He continued to pin his opponents, earning a pin of Peyton Hughes from Clackamas (4:11) to advance to the semifinal round.
In a tight matchup where he was only down 10-8, Lowry lost on a late pin to top seed Dylan Brown from Northeast Oklahoma (5:12).
In the consolation semifinal Lowry lost by pin (4:28) to Chris Lopez from Western Wyoming.
Lowry bounced back against No. 2 seeded Kanaipono Tapia from North Idaho in the fifth place match, earning a pin (2:55) to garner his second All-American honors for the Trappers.
“Brady was a huge lift,” Zeigler said. “He found himself this weekend, he found some things that he could do. It was awesome.”
The final All-American for the Trappers was Cody Pinkerton at the heavyweight division, moving his way early after earning a forfeit in the first round from Triton’s Ronald Krewer.
In the Round of 16 Pinkerton earned a pin (2:34) over Connor Bleymeyer from Itasca, advancing to the quarterfinals.
Pinkerton fell by pin (3:22) to Kale Schrader from Northeast Oklahoma in the quarterfinals, sending him to the consolation round.
In the consolation round, Pinkerton pinned Gavin Dodge from Northwest Kansas Tech (3:32) to advance to the next consolation round.
Pinkerton then earned a 6-2 decision over Nate Beberg from Rochester to advance to the consolation semifinals.
In the consolation semifinal, Pinkerton lost a 3-1 decision to Shane Whitney — dropping him to the fifth place match.
In that final match he finished with a late pin (6:09) over Hugo Harp from Iowa Central to earn a fifth place finish and All-American status.
“I think Cody had an additional motivation,” Zeigler said. “He was close with Ryker [Blackburn] and he felt if Ryker didn’t do it then he had to do it.”
Northwest had two more competitors at the national tournament, where Gus Harrison finished 1-2 at 157 pounds while Blackburn went 0-2 at 197 pounds.
“I was not sure what happened with Ryker, he’s been battling a shoulder injury,” Zeigler said. “He just did not have a good tournament, through this whole time he has been a rock and the leader on this team. He was the last person I would have guessed it happened to but it did … Gus wrestled tough but he is in that group that is between ninth and 15th but he is just not quite in that top eight yet.”
COACHING TREE SUCCESS
Wrestling in Wyoming continues to be a strong tradition, and that tradition grew stronger in Iowa when Western Wyoming won its first team national championship.
“As much as we want to beat Western Wyoming, I am so proud of Art Castillo,” Zeigler said. “He is one of us, he’s a Trapper, he is the first one on my coaching tree to win a national championship as a coach.”
Zeigler said that Western is a team that Northwest is familiar with, due to the amount of times the two teams wrestle as well as the nature of recruits coming from Wyoming and Utah having wrestled each other in high school.
“As long as they aren’t wrestling us we are cheering for them … during that finals match for Aziz the whole Western crowd was cheering for him. They feel like us, as long as they aren’t wrestling for us they are cheering for us,” Zeigler said. “That’s something for the wrestling community in Wyoming to take note of. They don’t have to go away to find good wrestling, they can come to school here, the university or Western Wyoming to get good coaching and good schooling.”
After becoming one of the most successful junior college wrestling teams in the country, the Trappers have been faced with a multitude of challenges over the past couple of years trying to rebuild a once dominant program.
“It’s difficult when you’ve been here as long as I have been, starting from scratch after 28 years of work and we had to start all over again,” Zeigler said.
Northwest has battled through sanctions imposed for an infraction of NJCAA rules, COVID-19, the death of a wrestler and a bear attack all in the span of three years.
Now at the 30-year mark, Zeigler feels the Trappers have returned to the top of the conversation for wrestling programs nationally, returning to the top 10 of the team standings for a majority of the season and finishing 10th at nationals.
“These kids have done the work, helped us get back to the top 10 nationally where we were for 24 years,” Zeigler said.
He said that this season the team has battled not only through the bear attack, but worked their way through the media frenzy that ensued and focused on simple tasks to help allow the team to train and focus better.
“We focused on simple tasks like eating, sleeping, training, studying, family and friends. We kept it as simple as possible — that allowed us to train and focus on the things we needed to do to get better,” Zeigler said.
He said a defining moment for the season was when the Trappers defeated then No. 4-ranked Northwest Kansas Tech in a dual in Rock Springs, which helped kickstart Northwest to a strong dual season.
Another addition to the team this season was former NFL player Chris Cooley, who helped the Trappers in December and joined officially as an assistant in January.
“Our wolfpack got a little stronger, we just stayed focused,” Zeigler said.
Northwest continued to grow throughout January, advancing the six qualifiers to nationals and working back to the top to cap off the 30th year of Zeigler in charge of Trapper wrestling.
“Through the struggles of the past couple of years, a year where we weren’t eligible to compete, a year with the aftermath of that, for these kids to stick around — we found out this community appreciates our wrestling program and we want to work hard to make them proud of us,” Zeigler said.