North Central College has become a wrestling powerhouse in both men's and women's wrestling under the leadership of Joe Norton, the head coach of both programs. The North Central men's and women's wrestling teams both claimed team trophies at their respective national tournaments this past season. The men's team tied for third at the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships and crowned a pair of national champions. The women's team finished fourth at the National Collegiate Women's Wrestling Championships and had a repeat champion.
MatBoss caught up with Norton and talked to him about the historic season for the men's and women's wrestling teams at North Central, recruiting, challenges of running two wrestling programs and more.
On the men's side, you tied for third at the NCAA Division IIII Wrestling Championships, which was the first team trophy in program history, crowned a pair of national champions and had four All-Americans. What were the emotions leaving the national tournament?
Norton: The emotions were mixed. There was relief that we finally got Robbie and Cody on top of the podium. In 2020 when the championships were canceled Robbie was the No. 2 seed and Cody was the No. 3 seed, but we felt like they could both win it. We felt like they were both going to win it. Last year the tournament was canceled again. We had the NWCA tournament, but it wasn't the same. Cody won it. Robbie was runner-up. Lost in double overtime. So this year I think there was relief that we got those guys on the top of the podium, that we got those two freshmen on the podium, and relief to get the first team trophy secured. But he flipside of it is disappointment that you're that close and just knowing that we had two guys that took fourth at the regional that could have been there, that just barely missed qualifying that could have placed and put us over the hump. So I'd say mixed emotions as far as relief and excitement but also I don't know, just feeling a little bit like there's more on the table for us to go and get next year.
Cody Baldridge won his second straight national title. What makes him special?
Norton: What makes him special? He is still learning. He won a state championship in high school. He's a three-time finalist. His sophomore year he lost to Jacob Warner, who's now at Iowa. His junior year he lost to Cam Caffey, who is now at Michigan State. His senior year he was an undefeated state champion. In college, he was in the blood round as a freshman. The tournament was canceled his sophomore year. Then he won back-to-back titles. He's still learning and getting better. He's still figuring it out. I think he's just adding confidence now. It helps him learn because he knows that the more he learns, the more unstoppable he's going to be. So I think that makes him special. He just does things hard. He lifts hard. He wrestles hard. I think it pays off when you do that consistently every day. He's been doing it for probably 15 years.
Robbie Precin capped off an undefeated season by winning the national title at 133 pounds. What allowed him to make that jump from national finalist to undefeated national champion?
Norton: The biggest thing with Robbie was helping him understand that he has to go score right away and not let people hang around. I think he's the best Division III wrestler in the country. His older brother was a three-time All-American at Northwestern. He is in the corner with him and in the room almost every day. So he's got the pedigree. But it was not letting people hang around. Last year in the finals he let his opponent slip out of a couple of single leg attempts and that was the reason he lost the match. He has to get takedowns in the first period and ride hard. So he started doing that. When he scores the first takedown, he can't be beat. Like period. And he started to figure that out. That's probably the difference.
Alex Villar placed fourth at the NCAAs at 149 pounds. What does he need to do to move up on the podium in the coming years?
Norton: He needs to evolve. He needs to add more basics on to his high-level stuff. He does some stuff defensively that's pretty special. Defending his legs, some stuff he can do on bottom to flip into reversals. I think when he can find the perfect balance of the high-level, special stuff that he does with just basic stuff, then he's going to be truly unbeatable.
You have several assistant coaches, including Zach Cook, who has been with you as an assistant coach since 2019. How important is your coaching staff to your success?
Norton: It's everything. Zach Cook is the best small college wrestling coach in the country. DII, DIII … I'd stack him up against anybody, truly. None of our wrestlers would have accomplished what they did without him. I'm busy with both the men's and women's programs and over 80 athletes. He's the one that really develops their skills and helps each one figure out their path to victory. It's phenomenal. We take turns running the room, but I'm not shy about admitting that they probably get more out of the days that he runs practice. He's just as good as it gets. Technically, motivation, recruiting, the guy is just a workhorse and it's awesome having him here. Then we have a handful of part-time assistants that I've had for a while. The coaches are incredible and have been loyal to the program.
Your men's roster is primarily Illinois natives. Illinois is obviously a very strong wrestling state. How much do you look outside the state when it comes to recruiting?
Norton: We're starting to branch out a little bit more now. We've learned through coaching the women's team that we had to recruit much more nationally. For the men's team we didn't really have to, but we started to kind of figure out how to be successful. I think women's wrestling taught us that how to be successful in recruiting outside of Illinois. It's allowed us to branch out a little bit more now into states like Florida, California and Washington. So that's only going to help us. But with as good as Illinois is at the high school level, we haven't needed to go outside of the state too much.
When it comes to recruiting, there is always talk about fit. What type of kid is a good fit in your program?
Norton: Someone who is passionate about wrestling. We're wrestling junkies. We love it. We think about it and talk about it all day long. We want a kid that's going to go to class and take care of that side of things too, obviously. But you have to love wrestling. You have to want to be in the room all the time.
Looking ahead to next season, you return multiple All-Americans, including a national champion, are the pieces in place to contend for a national title next season?
Norton: Absolutely. We'll actually bring two All-Americans back into the lineup from last year's NWCA national tournament. Our 125-pounder took fourth and our 184-pounder took fourth. Neither wrestler was in the lineup this year. So you add that on top of the four All-Americans from this year and I think we should be favored to win it next season.
You serve as the head men's wrestling coach and head women's wrestling coach. From an outside perspective, it seems like it would be very challenging, especially being in the same season. How do you balance that? What kind of challenges come with that?
Norton: I lean on the assistant coaches quite a bit. I don't get to do as many of the one-on-one workouts during the season as I'd like to or as I used to do. But with Coach Cook, Coach Zamin and Amanda Martinez, they do those. It's leaning on the assistants and holding them to a high standard to where they can meet expectations on their own and I don't have to babysit them so much. They know what's expected of them.
On the women's side, you finished 14-2 in dual meets, placed third at the National Duals and concluded the season by placing fourth at the NCWWC National Championships with 128 points from 12 All-Americans and a national champion. How would you assess the season for the women's team?
Norton: It was awesome. It was only our third year with women's wrestling. So it's kind of crazy how far we've come how fast we've gotten here. It was a lot of fun. Just in terms of firepower, we knew placing in the top two was going to be really tough with what King and McKendree had. Next year is the year that we feel like we can do that. But this year it was about getting a team trophy. It was about getting girls into the finals and having a shot at winning individual titles. We had three girls in the finals. That was a lot of fun. It was getting girls on the podium. We had 12 All-Americans, which was tied for the most of any school. Our goal was to get a team trophy and doing that was really cool.
Yelena Makoyed earned her second straight national title. She took a loss at the national Duals. I think it was her first loss in two seasons. And then ran the table. What's she like to coach?
Norton: She's awesome. She's the epitome of what you want and it's great because the girls see it every day. They just understand that if your goal is to win a national title, this is what you do. If your goal is to make world Olympic teams, this is what you do. This girl was third at the Olympic Trials. She's going to make the world team this summer. It's awesome because she doesn't just march through everything because she's talented. There's certainly some God-given talent but she gets up at the right time. She goes to bed at the right time. She eats the right things. She gets a 3.7 GPA. She is an amazing teammate. So it's awesome. We are so lucky that we added women's wrestling and had a girl like her on the team immediately.