Rocky Burkett is entering his eighth season as the head wrestling coach at Northern State University. This past season, Burkett led the Wolves to a 10-3 dual meet record and a top-25 finish at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships. Burkett has guided the program to five consecutive winning seasons, including a perfect 5-0 record and conference championship in 2021.
MatBoss caught up with Burkett and talked to him about this past season, All-American Cole Huss, building the program, coping with the death of two wrestlers, NSIC and more.
You just wrapped up your annual team camp at Northern State. You had some well-known clinicians like Jason Nolf, Nick Gwiazdowski and Reece Humphrey. How did the camp go from your perspective?
Burkett: It was really good. Those guys did a great job. We've been pretty fortunate over the years to be able to bring in some great clinicians. The guys had high energy and brought a lot of fun and excitement, so it's pretty cool for the kids to have that opportunity to be around some high-level guys with that type of excitement.
You're coming off a really strong season. 10-3 in dual meets, with all three of your losses coming against top-10 teams. You finished in the top 25 at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships. What did this past season's success do for your program?
Burkett: The last two years have been really great for our kids. They finally see that if you put this type of effort and commitment into it, the results are going to show. We've been doing that over the last few years. It was a lot of young guys before. Maybe they weren't quite ready for that success when it gets to the region tournament or the national tournament. Now the last two years we've had an older team and now they believe it. They can see it. They've seen the results and now it's not like our young guys have to go through that process. They have older guys now that can teach them how to do it. So it's been pretty fun to be a part of.
Cole Huss became an All-American by placing fourth at 197 pounds. What allowed him to make the jump to become an All-American?
Burkett: The biggest thing is he moved up a weight class. He loves to lift. He was at 174 pounds the year before. He was pretty banged up throughout the season. This year he is putting in a lot of time in the weight room. He came in super strong. The biggest thing for him was just going up those couple weight classes and feeling good and strong. You could see his confidence continue to build throughout the year.
Wyatt Turnquist had a nice season at 149 pounds. What does he need to do to take that next step and become an All-American?
Burkett: Technically, maybe just get a little bit better on his feet. He's one of the most driven kids I've been around. So he's just putting in the work and perfecting his craft. He's been traveling around doing camps. He went and did some training with some different clubs. He's just continuing to be a wrestling junkie and is very driven. That's the biggest thing for him. That's what gotten him to this point and it's going to continue to keep making him better.
You obviously took over at a low point in program history. The program was suspended a few months before you took over. Your first three seasons you had losing records, including a 2-14 season in 2017-18. Do you ever reflect back on the early struggles and think about how far you have come over the past five years?
Burkett: For sure. Really it was just finding the right group of kids, getting the culture built and laying the foundation in doing things the right way. It sounds pretty cliché, but at the end of the day, once we were able to put together a group of guys that wanted to do things at a high level, then the results started showing. It's pretty satisfying. When we started our wrestling camps I think we had 10 kids the first year. We have had around 300 in each of the last two years. And so even just things like that. 2-14 to 10-3, I'll take that any day. But really it's not just the winning. You think about the process that kids went through to get to that point and the struggle. Our team has gone through a lot of adversity. The guys that were seniors this year lost two of their teammates they came in with. One passed away from a heart condition. The other one from a suicide this last year during our season. So it's a pretty special group of guys.
You mentioned the two wrestlers who passed away on your team, Curtis LeMair and Caden Moore. What are you going to remember about each of them?
Burkett: With Curtis it was early in his freshman year. He was a couple months in, but he had been coming up in the summer and working out with us. He was a pretty high-level kid out of Minnesota who placed several times at some national tournaments. He was a multiple-time state placewinner. He really took a chance on us. He believed in what we were doing and wanted the team to be great. He kind of set that standard with the rest of the guys in his class. His family is still really special to our program. They're still a part of it. We go to their ranch every fall for our team trip. His sister is a manager for us. For him it was a vision that he believed in the program and was one of the guys that set the standard while he was here of what the expectations were as far as a student, as an athlete and as a person.
Caden was one of the most high-energy, fun kids I've ever been around. Like Curtis, he was just totally driven and committed to making the program great. Just a selfless person. That was the big thing with both of them. They're just totally committed and selfless people. It's still hard talk about what they have meant to our program.
You coached at Aberdeen Central High School before taking over as head wrestling coach at Northern State, also located in Aberdeen. What makes Aberdeen a special place?
Burkett: When I got here I was a grad assistant. It's a sports town. There are no professional teams. Northern State is the big show in town, which makes it pretty cool. When I first arrived we would lead the nation in attendance for D2 basketball. Everyone loves basketball here. For me, it was like, man, we have a lot of wrestling people here too. It's pretty special getting those people involved in wrestling and then showing them that this can be a really successful town for wrestling. So it's been special being a part of that and seeing our youth program grow, high school do well and obviously our college is doing pretty well too.
The NSIC is a very competitive wrestling conference. Obviously, St. Cloud State is the premier program in Division II, but you also have Augustana, Parkside, Mary, Upper Iowa, among others. What is it like competing in such a strong conference?
Burkett: I love it. I feel like from top to bottom we have one of the best conferences in the country for Division II, not only teams, but coaches too. When you're going against some well-coached teams, that means you have to be prepared every week. I think that our guys enjoy that competition. Every week it's going to be a challenge. We love being ready for that challenge and getting to go and compete in those environments. It wasn't too long ago that we were the ones getting their butts kicked all the time. Now it's fun to finally go out and be able to compete at a high level with a lot of these teams.
You recently announced your incoming freshman class. It includes wrestlers from the Dakotas, as well as Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. What kind of impact do you think this class can have on your program?
Burkett: They're great kids and great students. A lot of those guys were here working our camp last week, so they kind of got an opportunity to see some of the guys and be around them before school starts. I feel like they're just another group that continue to set high expectations for our program. There are some really talented kids. A couple of kids from Nebraska, Keith Smith and Trevor Reinke, both multiple-time state champs. So excited about those guys. I feel like the class is just a great group of guys that can continue to elevate our program in the future.
Looking ahead to this season with what you have returning and coming, what is the program capable of in the 2022-23 season?
Burkett: I think we can be really successful. I don't like to make predictions. I just know that we can be really successful if we continue doing what we've been doing. Obviously, there's little tweaks you got to make to techniques or the way we train and stuff like that. But I think if the guys keep believing in the process and continue being high-level student-athletes, we can have a really, really good year. We've been successful the last couple years in duals. We just have to get more wrestlers to the national tournament if we want to accomplish our ultimate goals. So that's one of the things that I want to see. We've had three guys, but let's get five guys or six guys to the national tournament. We're capable of doing that. We just have to do it on the right day.