The Campbell wrestling program has consistently been one of the top programs in the Southern Conference during the second half of this decade, winning the four most recent conference tournaments and posting undefeated SoCon results in 2020 and 2021. This history of success has caught the attention of recruits and has allowed the Camels to push for a national ranking. According to head coach Scotti Sentes though, this team is just getting started.
Jumping levels requires new competition, different experiences and more energy, and Sentes hopes to inspire such improvements in his team by welcoming powerhouse programs like Michigan and Nebraska to Buies Creek, North Carolina as part of Campbell’s rigorous non-conference dual schedule. These matches excite his wrestlers, particularly returning Southern Conference champion Caleb Hopkins, as he sees these bouts as an opportunity to rise in the rankings and make some noise.
“I really want to knock those guys off. We want to beat them,” Hopkins said. “The goal is to go undefeated in the dual season, and I think that we are perfectly capable of doing that, but our guys have to show up and get after it.”
In addition to these ambitious team goals, Hopkins sees himself on top of the podium in March. He recognizes that he may not be considered a likely contender — he’s currently ranked No. 23 in Intermat’s preseason poll — but Hopkins has had doubters before, and he enjoys proving people wrong.
Finding a home in Buies Creek
Caleb Hopkins didn’t necessarily know he would end up at Campbell University when he started his recruiting process, but the Alaska native dreamed of wrestling at the Division I level, and he committed himself to make that goal a reality. Hopkins said he reached out to coaches all over the country while in high school, hoping for a response and seeking a collegiate home. Few coaches responded. But then came the two-word email reply from then Campbell head coach Cary Kolat with one simple message: “Send video.”
Hopkins said he sent the film and then also reached out to Sentes, initiating communication that would put him on a path to becoming a Camel.
“A week later I was on a flight down here to see campus,” he said. “It was so different. It blew my mind. This place is awesome.”
Competing for Campbell has allowed Hopkins to have that Division I wrestling experience he always wanted, but he still competes with a chip on his shoulder, remembering the programs that turned him down.
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“My brother and I are from Alaska, we weren’t supposed to do anything,” Hopkins said. “We’re not all the big recruits. So many guys on the team weren’t good enough for other programs, but here we’ve been able to come in and work hard and develop and turn into a really tough team.”
Hopkins certainly has grown into a major contributor for the Camels during his career thus far, posting a 64-33 record in his last four seasons and electing to use his remaining eligibility to pursue his MBA and chase down his NCAA goals. He’s previously finished 1-2 in both of his past national tournament appearances, losing to Sam Colbray and All-American Louie DePrez in 2021 and dropping matches against Taylor Venz and Zach Braunagel last season.
These losses don’t deter him.
“I have to believe I’m right there with all of those top guys,” Hopkins said. “This summer, I proved that a lot to myself, just qualifying for the World Team Trials. I know I’m right there. I’ve beaten top-ten guys. I need to be a lot more consistent.”
Dear Wrestling,— NCAA Wrestling (@NCAAWrestling) March 19, 2021
Thank you for the friends that I have formed. Forged in the fires of training and hardened in the fierce competition.
-Caleb Hopkins, @GoCamelsWrestle #NCAAWrestling pic.twitter.com/FlMv1UhAqd
Hopkins has won two SoCon titles, but he’s now looking for the next goal. Sentes also has full faith in his wrestler, noting that both Hopkins and the team as a whole have made their biggest improvements after a loss.
Depth and determination define the Campbell Camels
The Camels qualified six wrestlers for the 2022 NCAA tournament, and while two of those wrestlers have graduated, the Camels have only continued to reload with more recruits and stars capable of taking over those spots.
Sentes noted that he’s particularly excited to see the growth of Justin Rivera, a Florida native who spent the last year as the backup for five-time NCAA qualifier Josh Heil and is expected to slot in at 149 pounds this year.
“He was a top prospect out of high school...and he’s really, really good. I think people just kind of forgot about him,” Sentes said. "He only lost once in two years in college, and it was a tight match in the Wolfpack Open finals, so I think he’s one that is a little under the radar.”
Rivera joins a talented group of Camel middleweights including Troy Nation, a solid 165-pounder last year who is planning to drop down to 157 pounds, and true freshman Dom Baker, who will hope to compete for the starting spot at 165 pounds. Baker comes to the Camels from New Kent High School where he finished as a three-time state champion and a bronze medalist at the Walsh Ironman, and Sentes said he could be “scary” at the weight.
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These guys, of course, add the roster of returners that includes 2022 SoCon conference champions Shannon Hanna at 141 pounds, Hopkins at 184 and Taye Ghadiali at heavyweight. Ghadiali is currently the highest ranked Campbell wrestler in Intermat’s preseason standings at No. 13, but Sentes expects his team to surprise some people and win matches against top-ten opponents.
Campbell University may not be the biggest school, and, as Sentes said, it may not be a “paint your face and pass out at the tailgate” kind of sports environment, but it’s a place that is developing talent. This is a setting where everyone from Alaska native Caleb Hopkins to Central Michigan alum Scotti Sentes can find a home and reach their potential as leaders.