From obscurity to a national power.
The story of Campbell Wrestling.
By Billy Liggett
Josh Heil had never heard of Campbell University or its wrestling program when he got a phone call from Cary Kolat in 2016.
And why would he?
The program had a combined 3-23 record in its previous two seasons and was barely a year removed from serving a one-year postseason suspension because it failed to meet Academic Progress Rate standards set forth by the NCAA. And the struggle wasn’t new — Campbell’s record in dual meets from 2004 to 2011 was a lackluster 23-118.
Fighting Camel Wrestling had little going for it in the fall of 2016. But it had Kolat — a former Olympian and a legend in the sport, and a name Heil and all young wrestlers knew — and it had a group of underrated and hungry young men who had bought into his vision.
So for a kid like Heil — who was short on accolades but big on potential — Campbell was a fit.
“I wasn’t what you’d call a ‘successful’ high school wrestler,” says Heil, who grew up in Ohio, a hotbed for high school wrestling. “I never won state. I never won a national tournament. I was good, but I probably wrestled at the toughest level. So for Cary Kolat to call me and talk to me the way he did — he knew I had something everyone else didn’t see. For a guy like that to think like that, it just felt right. He knew how hard I worked. He knew how hard I wrestled. And he knew that’s the kind of wrestler he wanted.”
Fast forward to 2021.
Entering his sixth year (thanks to a redshirt year and a COVID year), Josh Heil is an All-American. He’s also Campbell’s first four-time NCAA Championships qualifier, has 94 career wins (12 over opponents ranked in the Top 25 nationally in their weight class), has been ranked as high as seventh in the nation himself in the 149-pound weight class and was named an NWCA Division I Scholar All-American in 2021.
As for the program, under Kolat and current head coach Scotti Sentes — who took over in 2020 — Campbell has earned seven Southern Conference team trophies and produced 26 NCAA qualifiers and six All-Americans (including Heil) in the past five years. This past year, Campbell had a school-record seven NCAA qualifiers and two UWW Junior and Senior All-Americans and became a nationally ranked program.
Expectations are at an all-time high entering the 2021-22 season with a returning All-American and a Top 25 ranking in the NWCA Coaches Poll. More importantly for Heil, the atmosphere and swagger in the program’s recently constructed practice facility at the Pope Convocation Center is a far cry from what he experienced as a true freshman in 2016.
“Six years ago, I had to trust Coach Kolat and what his plans were for the program,” he says. “We didn’t have the success that he could point to from previous years. We just had to trust him and trust his process. And that’s a big leap of faith.
“For the [freshmen] coming in now, success is expected. If you come here, and you fail, then you’re doing something wrong. But if you come here, work hard, train right, eat right, live right and follow the lead of our upperclassmen, you’re going to succeed. There’s no doubt, you’re going to win.”
Campbell’s wrestling program had its moments before the Cary Kolat era.
Founded in 1968 under the guidance of Coach Gerald Brown, the Camels put together a 6-5 record in dual matches in their first season and a 7-3 record in Year 2, going up against similarly sized schools like Wesleyan, St. Andrews, Western Carolina and Pfeiffer. The third year brought in tougher competition like Duke, the Citadel and Elon, and by the mid 1970s, Campbell wrestling was a middling program that would regularly beat up on smaller schools and regularly lose to larger, more established
Coach Jerry Hartman had the most successful run in the 1980s, posting an 80-39 record and bringing in kids like Bobby Sottile (107 collegiate wins against just 20 losses), Scott Amundsen (109 wins) and perhaps Campbell’s most notable wrestler in the program’s first 50 years, Anthony Cox, who became Campbell’s first wrestler to qualify twice for the NCAA Championships and missed All-American status by just one match in his junior year.
Wrestling joined the Colonial Athletic Conference in 1996 and struggled for the next four seasons against schools like Virginia Tech, William & Mary and James Madison. That changed for a short time with the arrival of former U.S. Olympic Wrestling and UCLA coach Dave Auble, who took over from 1999 to 2004 and peaked with a third-place finish in the conference in 2002.
Cary Kolat’s arrival in April 2014 was a big deal, not only for a school mired in a decade-long struggle on the mat but also for collegiate wrestling as a whole.
Then-Athletic Director Bob Roller called Kolat’s hiring a “milestone announcement” for the program. “Nationally and internationally, Cary Kolat is synonymous with wrestling for the past three decades, and I am confident he will build a program for Campbell that will be known throughout NCAA Division I,” he said in his announcement.
In the 1990s, Kolat was U.S. wrestling’s biggest name. In 1992, at the age of 18, he was the subject of a Sports Illustrated feature that called him “The Best There Ever Was” after he tore through Pennsylvania high school wrestling with a perfect 137-0 record. Kolat won two national titles for Lock Haven University after going a combined 50-1 in 1996-97 and won silver and bronze medals at the 1997 and 1998 world championships in Russia and Iran and three gold medals in the World Cup from ’98 to 2000.
His dream for an Olympic gold medal came crashing down in Sydney, Australia, in 2000, after a victory early in the Games was protested and overturned, and Kolat would lose the subsequent match. He finished ninth in his only Olympics at the age of 27.
He would leave the sport for a few years to work in marketing before returning as a coach at Lock Haven and eventually an associate head coach (and head coach in waiting) at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2010. He made the move 54 miles to the southeast four years later when Roller presented the opportunity. Kolat said in a 2015 interview with Campbell Magazine that Campbell reminded him of Lock Haven — a small, rural school with the potential to become a winning program.
“I’m exactly where I want to be at Campbell,” Kolat said a year after his hiring. “The smaller setting is more comfortable to me. I can get the same results here that others get at a larger school. I understand the type of kid who wants to come to a program like this and compete at a high level. Some might see barriers here. I see a great challenge.”
He said then that he knew the program would have to crawl before it could run.
“We’re rebuilding,” he said. “Campbell’s never had an All-American before. We’re going to change that.”
Kolat and his staff turned the program around faster than anyone imagined. From 2017 to 2020, Campbell won three Southern Conference Tournament titles and two regular season conference championships. It produced 19 NCAA Championship qualifiers, 12 individual SoCon champions and 28 conference tournament medalists.
Kolat also made good on his All-American promise with Nathan Kraisser, who left UNC with Kolat in 2014 and earned All-American honors with Campbell in 2017. Kraisser earned 74 wins at Campbell after winning 59 at UNC — his 133 victories make him Campbell’s all-time winningest wrestler.
Another Kolat protegé, Noah Gonser — the 2020 Southern Conference Wrestler of the Year and a second-team All-American — said the coach’s focus on fundamentals and work ethic, in addition to his ability to find athletes who would buy into his approach, was the key for Campbell’s reversal.
“We’re a developmental program,” says Gonser, now the program’s director of operations and recruitment coordinator. “College is such a big jump from high school, and the big names coming out of high school might get lost in a big program and might not get the mat time, attention or experience they might get at a smaller program.
“I wasn’t a big name, but I got mat time. And that mat experience allowed me to grow and eventually compete against and beat those bigger names. A lot of high school wrestlers get caught up in the big school, but they’re missing the opportunity they can have at Campbell. I knew coming here that I was going to have a shot.”
In Kolat’s final year at Campbell — the COVID-shortened 2019-2020 season — his team posted an 11-2 record and won each of their last nine duals (7-0 in conference). Six wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Championship, and as a team, Campbell ranked as high as 12th in the nation by InterMat, a respected media site.
Not surprisingly, larger schools took notice. On March 20, 2020, Kolat was hired by the Naval Academy to take over its wrestling program. In his first year at Navy, Kolat sent nine wrestlers to the NCAA Wrestling Championship — it was only the third time in school history the Academy has sent nine or more wrestlers to the sport’s biggest stage.
Navy also finished the season ranked 17th in the nation, just five spots ahead of Campbell.
Before he ever stepped foot in Buies Creek, Josh Heil was on his way to beautiful San Luis Obispo, California — 11 miles from the Pacific coast — to meet with coaches at California Polytechnic Institute and potentially sign with their program, which wrestled on the much bigger PAC-12 stage.
Heil learned when he landed that during his flight, the head coach at Cal Poly announced he was stepping down. The trip became nothing more than a nice, short beach vacation for Heil, who would choose Campbell a few weeks later.
But that turn of events at Cal Poly would have other big implications on Campbell’s program. Freshman Andrew Morgan — a California native — would transfer to Campbell and eventually become a first-team All-American in 2020, ranking as high as seventh in the nation in his weight class at one point. And two assistant coaches on the Cal Poly staff would leave for Campbell. One of them was Mike Evans, who followed Kolat to the Naval Academy in 2020.
The other was Scotti Sentes.
A four-time NCAA Championship qualifier and two-time All-American while a wrestler at Central Michigan University, Sentes played a significant role in building the program at Cal Poly, raising the team’s GPA and helping send three athletes to the NCAAs. In 2013, Sentes also initiated Cal Poly’s first outdoor wrestling match, which kicked off a nationwide trend for programs — like Campbell’s annual Orange & Black scrimmage held during Homecoming Week in the fall — to hold their own matches outdoors.
Sentes had an opportunity to coach at his alma mater after Cal Poly, but instead chose Campbell, because like Heil, he was intrigued by Kolat’s vision.
“He had just finished a 3-13 season, so, you know, this wasn’t going to be a sure thing,” Sentes recalls. “But I came down here and listened to his plan, and what I liked about Coach Kolat was he was very honest about everything. He knew the shortcomings, he knew what had to be fixed, he knew how hard it was going to be, and he set forth a timeline to get everything done. I just appreciated the honesty … when you know what the issues are, it’s a little easier to attack it the right way.”
Hired as the assistant head coach, Sentes was promoted to associate head coach in 2018, and when Kolat announced his departure for Navy in 2020, Sentes was named head coach at Campbell less than a week later. In the announcement, Athletic Director Omar Banks stressed the culture Sentes helped build over the previous five years — “He presented and articulated a vision for the future of the program, which let us know we had our coach.”
Some expected a drop off in 2021. They received the opposite.
Campbell sent a record seven Camels to the NCAA Championships in St. Louis this year after winning its third straight Southern Conference regular season and tournament title. Sentes was named national Rookie Head Coach of the Year by Amateur Wrestling News and also earned Southern Conference Coach of the Year.
“There were people who underestimated us coming into last year, and not just because of Cary’s departure,” Sentes says. “We lost Noah Gonser, who was a nationally ranked senior, and we lost [three-time NCAA qualifier] Quentin Perez — we were actually picked second in our own conference, and we didn’t enter the season nationally ranked. I think people were just uncertain. There were a lot of shoes to fill, so we kinda came into the season with this underdog mentality — we played the No. 2-ranked team in the country [Virginia Tech] to start the year, and our guys fought hard and wrestled well.
“I knew at that point that we had a pretty tough team and that we were going to be OK.”
The season proved that Campbell Wrestling is in more-than-capable hands. Sentes says his athletes have bought into the mindset that’s been molded over the past seven years, and they’re passing on the right work ethic and lofty expectations to incoming wrestlers. He says the academic programs Campbell University offers — he names homeland security and engineering specifically — have not only proven to be attractive to his athletes, but they afford them big opportunities when their wrestling careers are over.
And he says Kolat’s goal from Day 1 is still in place — to develop these young men and put them in a position for success.
“We’re getting new guys coming who are probably already better than some of the older guys, and that’s happened every year since I’ve been here,” Sentes says. “But what you see is when these new guys come in, they’re scrapping and challenging our juniors and seniors and making them better, too. Eventually, it gets harder and harder to make the team, and we’re at a point now where we still like having a big roster, but our lower range guys are just so much better now than they used to be.”
Heil saw six years ago what a coach leaving a program could mean when he witnessed the Cal Poly exodus. He knew Campbell’s wrestling program would be OK the first week Sentes was named head coach.
“It’s huge that [Sentes] was able to keep the older guys in the program,” Heil says. “Keeping the veterans, keeping the seniors, keeping the program together. When a guy like Cary Kolat moves on, it’s almost a given that you’re going to see a lot of transfers, especially those older guys. But right away, the core guys — they all stayed.
“Those core values that Coach Kolat instilled in this program — he’s keeping those values alive.”
Campbell will enter the 2021-22 season later this fall considered one of the Top 25 programs in the nation and surely a favorite to win another Southern Conference title. Sentes points to Heil and a strong returning senior class and wrestlers like Matt Dallara and Chris Rivera who are returning from injury this year as reasons for optimism that the winning will continue. The goal is to get guys “on the stand” in the NCAA Championships, and to make it happen, Sentes has made the regular season schedule much more difficult with matches against UNC and Virginia and tournaments like the Midlands at Northwestern and the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga.
“Our goal is to beat those top-ranked teams,” Sentes says confidently. “We always say, ‘Small school, big wrestling program.’ There’s no reason why we can’t do it.”
If you don’t follow Campbell wrestling on social media, go ahead and change that.
Run by Josiah Hritsko (pictured above, left, with Noah Gonser), @GoCamelsWrestle on Twitter and Instagram is an entertaining follow with a devoted fanbase of around 10,000 on each platform.
A native of Pittsburgh and a self-proclaimed wrestling “superfan,” Hritsko more than doubled the program’s social following in his first year. During the 2019-20 season, Campbell Wrestling videos earned more than 5 million views, and in 2021, Hristko organized the highly successful virtual Orange & Black Wrestle-Off, a fan experience with 10 hours of exclusive access to interviews, behind-the-scenes clips and preliminary rounds.
“I wanted to come to Campbell because I knew this program was going to grow and succeed, and it excited me to jump in and be part of the growth. There’s a lot of momentum here, and we’re getting a lot of new fans.”
Josh Heil and junior Caleb Hopkins were both named Scholar All-Americans for the 2020-21 academic year, and Campbell’s wrestling program finished No. 15 in the 2021 National Wrestling Coaches Association’s Division I Scholar All-America team rankings.
With a 3.3589 team GPA, the Camels earned a Top-30 ranking in the NWCA standings for the sixth time in program history and the fourth time in five years. Campbell also had 18 athletes make the Southern Conference’s Academic Honor Roll.
The honors come six years after the program was put on a one-year probation for failure to meet Academic Progress Rate standards.
Coach Scotti Sentes says the team’s performance in the classroom, like on the mat, goes back to recruiting.
“You want to recruit guys who can handle the academic rigor of Campbell, which is pretty tough academically,” he says. “We made sure we were bringing in the right kids — guys who are really competitive but can handle the workload. Those are the kids we’re investing in.”
a change to an opposite direction, position or course
in wrestling, when the athlete who is on the bottom and in the defensive position comes out from under and gains control over his opponent
From 2004 to 2011, Campbell Wrestling had a 23-118 record in dual meets, and in Cary Kolat’s first two years as head coach, the Camels were 3-23. Since 2016, the program has taken off:
- 7 SoCon team trophies
- 26 NCAA qualifiers (most in the SoCon in past five years)
- 6 All-Americans (Nathan Kraisser, Noah Gonser, Josh Heil, Jere Heino, Andrew Morgan and Quentin Perez)
- 15 conference champions (including 4 multiple time champs since 2017)
And in Scotti Sentes’ first year as head coach in 2021, the program didn’t let up:
- 7 NCAA qualifiers (most in Campbell history)
- 2 UWW Junior and Senior All-Americans
- SoCon regular season and tournament champions
- Top 25 ranked dual meet team in NCAA
- Raised more than $100,000 on Campbell Giving Day