COEUR d’ALENE — When assistant coach Brandon Richardson joined the North Idaho College wrestling coaching staff last season, the message was pretty clear.
In his first night as interim coach, Richardson left whatever messages that needed to be sent to his team.
“Pat Whitcomb told me when I first started here that no one person was bigger than the program,” Richardson said. “And these guys know that. They wrestled for a lot more than themselves, and they had a chance to walk away better tonight and show everyone that they’re taking the steps to get better. For everyone out here, we’ve got bigger goals than being ranked No. 4.”
Since Monday, Whitcomb, in his 22nd season as head coach, and assistant coach Keri Stanley, in his ninth season in the program, have been away from the team, pending the results of an investigation into academic procedures within the program.
“It’s been business as usual for our guys,” said Richardson, a former Lakeland High standout who went on to wrestle at Wyoming. “It’s one of those things where Monday was a hard day for these guys. They love their coach, Pat Whitcomb, and it means a lot to them. He’s the kind of guy that’s going to be in their lives. They knew it going in, they addressed it and they knew that going in. It was back to work that day. We got a really hard practice, and they knew moving forward, we were going to need some hard days. We were going to make some statements. It’s a resilient group, and I know they’re motivated to go do some big things.”
NIC responded on Thursday, whipping NAIA Eastern Oregon of La Grande 40-9 at Christianson Gymnasium.
“Pat was really good about giving Keri and I a lot of opportunities to step in and take leadership roles,” Richardson said. “It doesn’t feel all that unfamiliar. In my role, I spend a lot of times with these guys, and know how they tick. This part feels the most comfortable as anything. If anything, these guys realize you can wrestle for more than yourself and I think it really brought us together.”
Sophomore Bryce Parson of Lewiston beat Clay Johnson 10-3 in a match at 149 pounds.
“This week was kind of a crazy one,” Parson said. “Coach Brandon kept us positive and mentally in it. We just had a good week. It was a hard week and a lot of wrestling. We just kept our heads down and kept working. It’s the same thing we did when Pat and Keri were here, and it showed tonight. 40-9 is a pretty big deficit in a wrestling match.”
Parson wrestled as a freshman at Oregon State before opting to come to NIC in the fall.
“This week was a lot about Pat and Keri,” Parson said. “They brought a lot of kids to this school, and it took a bit for us on the mental side, but Brandon kept us aware. We just got it done. It’s what we do. Keri, I’ve known for a long time. Both Pat and Keri, they never gave up on me and always believed in me. It’s hard to see them go halfway through the season, but I know they’re with us. They’re cheering us on. As long as we know they’re still here, I’m still in the same head space I was when I came here. Now I want to win that national title because it’s personal for me because they’re not here. Brandon’s doing a great job and keeping the program where it needs to be.”
Richardson is in his second year as an NIC assistant. He was the only coach on the bench Thursday night.
“There’s less than 50 days to the national tournament, and I make them aware of that every day,” Richardson said. “It’s building and I met with each of the guys and talked about their goals. For some of our guys, they’ve still got some work to do. Clackamas is the team to beat, and you better believe we want to beat them.”
Izaiah Duran (165 pounds), Trager Abatti (174) and Connor Sullivan (285) each won by pin for NIC, which faces University of Providence — formerly the University of Great Falls — on Saturday at Sentinel High in Missoula.
125 — Hunter Nees, EOU, d. Jacob Garrison, 7-2. 133 — Brian Edelblute, NIC, by forfeit. 141 — Dylan Lockwood, NIC, by forfeit. 149 — Bryce Parson, NIC, d. Clay Johnson, 10-3. 157 — Cooper McCullough, NIC, md. Keegan Muhill, 14-6. 165 — Izaiah Duran, NIC, p. Jacob Dupuis, 5:49. 174 — Trager Abatti, NIC, p. Tyler Wilson, 4:17. 184 — Marco Retano, EOU, p. Austin Burrell, 6:26. 197 — Hunter Gregerson, NIC, d. Dino May, 10-3. 285 — Connor Sullivan, NIC, p. Justin Wilson, 2:09.