Make no mistake, North Central College Men’s & Women’s Wrestling Programs recent success is no accident. This past season Cody Baldridge became the first Men’s NCAA Division III National Champion for the Cardinals (Ed Jackson was a National Champion for North Central in 1969, but North Central competed in the NAIA division, back then). While, Yelena Makoyed became the first Women’s NCWWC National Champion. The Men’s team also had 6 other All-Americans; Robert Precin, Ben Bergen, Cole Cervantes, Rafael Roman, Brock Montford, and Bradley Rosen. While the Women’s team claimed 5 other All-Americans; Amanda Martinez, Asia Nguyen-Smith, Malea Palahniuk, Mateah Roehl and Abbey Denney. The Men’s program finished 5th in the final NCAA D III Men’s Team Standings at nationals, were ranked 8th in the final NCAA D III Rankings in 2020, and the Women’s team finished 6th at NCWWC Women’s Championships. Both programs have crowned National Champions in recent weeks and both programs are in the top ten in their respective divisions. Leading both programs is Head Coach Joe Norton.
Yelena Makoyed after winning the program’s first Women’s NCWWC National Title
Norton has been the Men’s Wrestling Coach for 7 years, and has been at the head of the Women’s program since its inception, 2 years ago. During his reign, the Cardinals have won the CCIW twice, in 2018 and 2019, and have been runners-up twice, in 2020 and 2021. Both years finishing 2nd to Millikin. He remembers where he started though, stating, “My first season, people forget we went 4-9 in dual meets. We took 4th out of 4 teams in the conference tournament, last. In the past 4 years we have had a combined record of 42-9, and are now a top ten team.” Asked what changed at NCC and Norton’s response is swift, “Culture. It also takes a lot of support from the institution.”
Norton attributes a lot of his current success to former Hall of Fame Head Coach, Jim Miller, now North Central’s Athletic Director. Norton quotes, ”Great leaders plant the seed, so future leaders can sit in the shade. I love that quote, because that is what Jim did. He put the time in and built this thing into something, that I got to build on, and reap the benefits from.” Norton continues his admiration for Coach Miller saying, “He gets it, He was 2020 Athletic Director of the year for a reason. He understands the need for assistant coaches, because he coached so long without one. He understands a wrestling team needs to travel, needs new singlets, needs new mats. Being a wrestling guy he gets it, I don’t have to explain to him why I need these things, and that makes my job easier.” Another ingredient to North Central Wrestling’s winning potions is its coaches and training facilities.
Norton raves over Assistant Head Wrestling Coach Zack Cook. “Cook is the best kept secret in college wrestling. Seriously, he is one of the best college wrestling coaches I have ever met. The guy is just phenomenal, his wrestling mind is so far advanced beyond mine. I think very few people know wrestling at the level that he does. And he brings tremendous energy every single day.” National Champion, Cody Baldridge, echoes these thoughts, “Cook and Joe want to see us succeed. They preach it all the time, wanting to see us walk out of here successful. Both, go way beyond out of their way just to help, not just me out, but everyone else out. In the practice room they are so dedicated to wanting us to win.” He continued, “Cook comes in there and wrestles with all of us, it doesn’t matter if you’re the lowest weight class or the heaviest weight class, he’ll wrestle anyone. He’ll go over film with anyone, again just takes that extra time to help us out.” Yelena is straight forward when discussing Cook, “Cook will wrestle 6 hours a day, which is insane. I have seen it on his phone; 6 AM wrestle with Raf, then Men’s practice, followed by Women’s practice, then he will wrestle with someone after that!” It is clear that the coaching staff at North Central is committed. Coach Norton is proud of his commitment saying, “We are fortunate here, we are full-time wrestling coaches. We don’t go to teach classes during the day, or come from another job off campus, just for practice. We are here all day sun up to sun down. I am literally here with Cook everyday 7AM to 7PM getting better.” If your going to be in the office all day, newly renovated NCC’s facilities aren’t the worst place to spend your days.
“We are blessed here to have a huge wrestling facility, freshly renovated locker rooms, a weight room, wrestlers have a meeting room adjacent to the wrestling room for meetings or study halls, etc.” Coach Norton exclaims. Baldridge loves the facilities as well, “It’s one of the reasons I chose to come to school here, first of all we have an awesome facility. We have the whole wrestling gym to ourselves. We can come in anytime we want, and get a workout in. So, extra workouts with coaches or another wrestler is never a problem.” Facilities help in the recruiting process, and makes training more enjoyable. However, Coach Norton believes a positive team culture has been the catalyst for their success.
“Ultimately what it was, was a shift in culture. To get a group of guys who believe in each other, and care about each other. We had a lot of selfish attitudes on the team when I took it over. It takes a little bit of time, it takes about a recruiting cycle, 3-4 years to get your guys in there, that believe in you and what you’re doing.” It appears both the Men’s and Women’s culture is doing great, with both National Champions returning next season, Norton has his eyes on the future. “You gotta have four to five legit title contenders on a team, and eight or nine All-Americans to win a Team Title. This year we had seven All-Americans and two finalists, so we are there. It’s gonna take more guys buying into the process, that believe in what we’re doing, and who work their butts off.” Norton has both individual goals for his athletes and team goals. Regarding individual goals he states, “Putting kids on both sides of our All-American wall is important to us. Obviously being an All-American, the other side of that wall is Academic All-American. If you have over a 3.2 g.p.a. you qualify. That’s really important so we can put our kids in whatever grad school or medical school they want to go to, or just put them in a good job or internship right out of graduation.“ Norton discusses his team goals for both teams, “You know the goal is to win the title on both sides. I think realistically we can compete to do that next year. There are only two NCAA schools that had a Men’s Champion and a Women’s Champion this year and we were one of them.” With Joe Norton in charge, North Central College is well on their way to becoming one of the best schools in both Men’s and Women’s Wrestling.