North Dakota State may be a team on the rise, but it’s no secret that the program’s undergone some major changes over the last three months that have caused notable shakeups.
In March, the Bison scored 25.5 points at the 2023 NCAA championships to break the program record at the DI level. Its finish in 24th place also came in as the third-highest in its history. But on May 2, 2023, then-North Dakota State head coach Roger Kish took a new job as the head coach of Oklahoma. Three days later, the North Dakota State athletic department announced that then-assistant coach Obe Blanc would be taking over the Bison as the new head coach. North Dakota State's two returning All-Americans Jared Franek (fourth at 157 in 2023) and Michael Caliendo (seventh at 165 in 2023) transferred to Iowa a little over a month after the coaching change, creating a serious loss of firepower.
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But for returning national qualifier Kellyn March, little about his day-to-day training and development has changed since these disruptions. He’s still working with Blanc and training on a similar cycle. He’s progressing as expected. If anything, March feels more confident than ever about his ability to continue to find success at North Dakota State, even with the changes.
“I know there’s been a lot of stuff that’s been going on with obviously losing a big piece of our coaching staff and then also with losing quite a bit of teammates, and I think one of the biggest things for the team is that they know that no matter what happens that I’m a guy that they can lean on because I’m super loyal and grateful for what NDSU has brought to me,” March said. “They know that I would put it all on the line for the team and for myself and for everyone that wants to be part of NDSU wrestling.”
March came to Fargo, North Dakota in 2020 — perhaps the most unconventional year to start a collegiate wrestling career — after winning four high school state titles in South Dakota. He finished 7-8 in his rookie college season and went 2-2 at the Big 12 tournament. Two years later, the young Bison middleweight went 25-9, picked up ranked wins against Colin Realbuto, Mitch Moore, Victor Voinovich and Quinn Kinner and qualified for the NCAA championships at 149 pounds.
His development and growth at North Dakota State is undeniable, and while he’s just one piece of the puzzle in the program, he's an important piece, one that Blanc can build around.
“Fargo's way bigger, way better than I thought”
North Dakota State sits centrally located in Fargo, the site of the biggest youth wrestling tournament in the world. Every year, thousands of high school students converge in the city to compete for national honors and the attention of college coaches. Blanc knows that when most people think of Fargo, and consequently, North Dakota State University, they associate it with this tournament. They think of long days in the gym, or they think of the potentially cold winters. What they don’t think about is what the campus of North Dakota State can offer an athlete and how big Fargo can really feel.
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“Just about every athlete that we actually have come on a visit, they always go, 'Wow, this place is way better than I thought, Fargo's way bigger, way better than I thought,' ” Blanc said. “ It’s often like, ‘Wow this is everything that I’ve ever wanted, I just didn't know that this existed here.’ I think it’s definitely one of the best kept secrets, I guess, in wrestling.”
Blanc’s first hire as a head coach of the Bison — Hayden Hidlay — had a similar reaction to the city.
Hidlay, a five-time All-American for NC State and an NCAA finalist in 2018, moved to North Dakota in June because of the opportunity to work with Blanc. He was ready to transition into an assistant coaching position, but, even more than that, he wanted to reunite with Blanc, someone who had coached him at NC State before Blanc moved to North Dakota. The fact that Fargo turned out to be an exciting city was an added bonus for Hidlay.
“The city of Fargo is much bigger than I thought. It’s probably around 250,000 people in the metro area here. It’s a great fit for someone like me.” Hidlay said. “I was used to what Raleigh had to offer, and so being able to get to somewhere that if you want something to eat, it’s not like you’re limited to a place like here. There’s plenty of things to do as well, so that’s been really great.”
Hidlay, the first assistant coach under Blanc, is now excited to build a home in this new city, and Blanc and the Bison athletes are similarly thrilled to work with him.
Building future Bison
Described by Blanc as “one of the best leaders [he’s] ever seen,” Hidlay will do serious recruiting to help rebuild the program. But first, Hidlay has to meet his new team and become acquainted with the guys already on the roster, a process that has gone smoothly, at least according to Kellyn March.
“You can’t ask for a better training partner than Hayden,” March said.
March noted that Hidlay’s hiring played a role in his decision to stay at North Dakota State after the coaching changes, a comment that speaks to Hidlay’s positive reputation in the sport and his ability to help develop middleweights like March.
The respect between March and Hidlay is also mutual, with the new assistant coach explaining that March is “one of the most exciting wrestlers to watch” and “constantly a threat to hit big moves.”
March’s veteran leadership will be critical at 149 pounds, with redshirt freshmen expected to take up many of the other light and middleweight spots for the Bison.
Fernando Barreto, a 133-pounder from California, is high on the list of other athletes that both coaches think can help replicate the national success North Dakota State saw last season when it put two athletes on the podium. Gavin Drexler, Landen Johnson and Brendon Howes at 141, 157 and 165 pounds also add depth to the middleweight lineup. These four guys went a combined 41-18 in their redshirt seasons and are expected to slot in nicely in the starting lineup, as of now.
The Bison lineup will be young this year. There’s no denying that reality. But growth is a process.
“What I think people should realize about this team is that they believe in one another, and they believe in what Obe and I are trying to do here,” Hidlay said. “The guys that decided to stay and are here in the room on my very first day, they are going to get every ounce of my energy into making them the best wrestlers and the best people they can be. We’re going to find that experience, and they are going to be better because of that.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all model for the coaches as they develop their team. They explained that they want wrestlers who are willing to fight in all positions. They want wrestlers who want to work with them and embrace a creative training system that allows them to express their personality and develop into well-rounded student-athletes.
And they want wrestlers willing to buy into this new coaching staff and battle for podium spots again.
North Dakota State has proven itself to be a program where people can win. Blanc and Co. want recruits to remember that, even though the coaching staff is new, the expectations are not.
“You can have success at North Dakota State, and it has to do with the great institution, and it has to do with the coaches that are willing to be innovative,” Blanc said. “You can replicate success by recruiting and developing, and I think that’s what everyone kind of learned about North Dakota State. You can go to this place and have success, and I have no plans of stopping moving forward.”