The college career of Matt Atwood hasn’t exactly happened the way he would have dreamed. At first the two-time transfer struggled to adapt to college life and then found himself relegated to the role of bystander at the national championships in each of the last three years.
The tables have turned for the senior from Smith Center, Kan. During Friday’s first session of the 2016 NAIA Wrestling National Championships, a prideful Atwood again watched. This time he was happy to be a member of the audience, looking on as brother Kyler earned a 2-1 victory. That decision came not long after Matt polished off his first-ever national tournament win with a pin of Missouri Valley College’s Brett Bader.
“A little bit,” Atwood said when asked if he was nervous for his first taste of nationals. “I’ve wrestled here since I was four every year. It’s been good to be home. There were some first-match nerves. I really haven’t had that this year. It’s good to get that out of the way.”
The win moved Atwood, ranked seventh in the 184-pound weight class, to 25-5 overall. The former Bethany College and Fort Hays State University grappler has broken out as a Bulldog. By way of capturing a NAIA North Qualifier title on Feb. 20, Atwood clinched the bid to the national tournament. Said Atwood at the time, “I’m blessed to be here. I couldn’t be happier with where God’s put me.”
In his only season in the Concordia navy and white singlet, Atwood has far surpassed the expectations head coach Dana Vote had for him. In a last-chance opportunity, Atwood has put together a season that could ultimately land him on the medal stand.
“I think it’s awesome,” Vote said prior to the start of the national championships. “Matt’s really embraced what we’ve talked about here. He had a new opportunity and he took full advantage of it. He’s excited to compete and I’m excited for him.”
Atwood began his meandering college career at in Hays, Kan., a more party-happy place that he admits got the best of him. He soon left for Bethany, where Cody Garcia took over as head coach for a brand new program. Atwood spent four years there, including a redshirt season. Garcia had left for Baker University this past June, which spurred Atwood to put himself back on the market for one final year of eligibility.
Atwood spent the summer training in Omaha, still unsure of his next move. That’s where a link to Vote got the wheels turning on a potential landing spot in Seward.
“I just took a leap and went. It’s been good for me,” Atwood said. “It didn’t take a lot to sell me to Concordia. I didn’t know (Mark) Fiala was going to be here, but I knew (former assistant Ryan) Pankoke from my coaches that had wrestled with him at UNO (University of Nebraska-Omaha). I had long talk with Garcia. He said (Ken) Burkhardt Jr. would be a good training partner for me. That’s what I was looking for.”
Working in the room with Burkhardt Jr., a 2015 NAIA All-American, has helped push Atwood to new levels while erasing some of past years frustrations. Atwood also points to his training sessions in Omaha as another reason for his success as a Bulldog.
Having been a fifth-place regional finisher at Bethany, Atwood wanted to leave no doubt about his qualification for nationals this time around. He went ahead and won the North Qualifier to save himself the suspense.
“I had a lot of bad luck,” Atwood said. “I watched a lot of people All-American while I sat in the stands and watched nationals every year. We were in a tough region and I kind of froze up every year. The year before I went to 174 I was winning 8-2 in the first-round match over the guy who won the region. I broke my ankle, taped it up and wrestled all the way through. I ended up fifth and I didn’t get the bid (to nationals).”
Atwood says he had something to prove after those disappointments. He now possesses a tough mental edge that Vote helped him develop. Look where he is now, wrestling alongside his brother, and in front of several family members, at the national championships.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Atwood said. “He lost his first match which was tough to see, but I’m really proud to be here with him.”