Confidence is growing within the Northern Colorado wrestling program, and Andrew “Boo” Alirez is a large reason for that.
Alirez, a Greely, Colorado native joined the program in 2019 with the goal of becoming a national champ. But after COVID canceled his first NCAA tournament, and an injury prevented him from competing in his second NCAA tournament, he realized he was running out of time. In 2022, Alirez nearly finished on the podium but lost his bloodround match, once again missing out on his goal.
That’s when he decided to make a change.
“One day, it just took me to be like ‘Hey, alright, I am three years into my college career, and I haven’t accomplished [anything], so it’s time to stop talking about it,” Alirez said. “I know I can do it, and it’s time to actually put myself into a position to accomplish that goal.”
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Fast forward a year, and Andrew Alirez was a national champion at 141 pounds, the first for Northern Colorado in the school’s history as a Division I program. He posted an undefeated record, dominated his opponents with a 71.43% bonus percentage and left no doubt that he was the top guy in the country.
A hometown boy turned champion — it’s a story that writes itself. And it’s a story that put Northern Colorado on the map and has inspired the next generation of Bears.
“One thing he's proven — and this is something that we sold him on five, six years ago when he committed here — was you can win a national title anywhere," Northern Colorado head coach Troy Nickerson said. "He was the first one to buy into that and have the ability to go out there and do so."
Alirez will now take an Olympic redshirt and pursue his freestyle goals, but his influence will still be felt in the Northern Colorado wrestling room. In fact, Nickerson explained that one of the things Alirez considered most when he elected to take this redshirt was how he could continue to stay involved in the program while he's not taking classes. Alirez thus decided to take on a mentor role in the room, helping to guide his teammates toward the top spot on the podium.
With the national champ sticking around and inspiring the upcoming stars on this team, Northern Colorado is poised for yet another notable season. The Bears finished ninth in the Big 12 and 23rd at NCAAs last year behind Alirez's championship run, and the national finish marks a program-high this decade for the Bears.
Here's what you need to know about this under-the-radar team that is quickly making big strides.
Becoming a force in the Big 12
Seventeen years before Alirez stood on top of the podium representing the Bears at the Division I NCAA tournament, Northern Colorado competed as a DII program, first in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, then in the Great Plains Athletic Conference and finally in the North Central Conference. The team managed to crown a number of national champions during this period, with Scott Hewit winning the most recent DII national title at 157 pounds in 1999.
But, now, of course, Northern Colorado is competing at the DI level in the Big 12 alongside some of the winningest wrestling programs in history, including the Oklahoma State Cowboys, the Iowa State Cyclones and the Oklahoma Sooners.
Alirez wants to be clear though: Northern Colorado isn’t just there to compete, the Bears want to win.
“It’s always been my goal to spark something to the point where Northern Colorado is a competitor on the national scene,” Alirez said. “We’re not just like a small program that maybe every now and then we might pop a decent guy out. My goal has always been to do enough myself to where we can start bringing in some of the best kids in the country to where we’re competing against Oklahoma State and Iowa.”
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One of those top wrestlers who recently joined the program with a similar goal of competing tough against those historic programs is N.C. State transfer Stevo Poulin, a former top-ranked high schooler who spent his first year of college in Raleigh before moving to Greely and finding immediate success. Poulin won the Big 12 tournament last year at 125 pounds and now has his sights set on a national title.
He believes that Northern Colorado’s rapid improvement and individualized attention makes the program an ideal place for talented young wrestlers, and he’s primed to follow in Alirez’s steps and chase glory for the Bears.
“Boo [Alirez] has been the biggest person for me to help me open my eyes to see those sorts of things,” Poulin said. “I’ve just been going into this pre-season with a completely different mindset and just like ready to take it all and ready to win everything.”
A bright future for the Bears
This year's Northern Colorado lineup will look a little different, with Alirez taking his Olympic redshirt and several others making their Northern Colorado varsity debuts, but there's an excitement about this team that thrills head coach Troy Nickerson.
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"I think some people may look at Andrew Alirez not being around with us this year and Northern Colorado being down this year, and that's just not the case," Nickerson said. "I believe Stevo [Poulin]...is going to be in the hunt to win a national title and then same with [157 pound] Vinnie Zerban."
Zerban, who comes into the season ranked No. 13, went 22-13 last year to finish in the Round of 12. His most notable win though came against NCAA finalist Levi Haines at the Jonathan Kaloust Bearcat Open 8-6 in sudden victory. Nickerson expects Zerban to make a run this year and continue to compete on par with the best in the country.
The Bears will also have a new face at 141, Alirez's weight, as Rudy Lopez is projected to compete for that spot. Nickerson emphasized that he's excited about Lopez finally having a chance to shine at this weight and chase success alongside some other Bears who will be making their varsity debuts for the team, including transfers Travis Mastrogiovanni and Adam Busiello.
Alirez expressed similar enthusiasm about Busiello in particular. A five-time New York state champ, Busiello spent a year at Penn State before competing his last few seasons at Nassau Community College. He's now looking to slot in for the Bears at 149 pounds and make an impact.
"That dude can wrestle," Alirez said. "I wrestle with him a lot, and I can say firsthand that he's going to go out and win a lot of matches. He's going to compete with the best guys in the country and hopefully get it done."
The first chance fans have to see this new and improved team comes on November 3 when the Bears open their season with duals against Fort Hays State and New Mexico Highlands, the latter of whom the Bears dominated 43-3 last season. The competition will kick up quickly though, as Northern Colorado welcomes West Virginia and Oklahoma State to Greely on December 10 and December 19, respectively.
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The Bears will then travel to the Southern Scuffle before a slate of Big 12 duals that include defending regular season conference champs Cal Poly along with Cal Baptist, South Dakota State, North Dakota State and Wyoming, all in the month of January.
Greely has embraced the Bears, Nickerson said, and he knows the home crowd will support this year's squad. As a Big 12 program at a Big Sky athletic conference school, Nickerson noted that the wrestling team is particularly embraced, so much so that Alirez appeared on buses around campus after his national title win.
Northern Colorado is a school that celebrates wrestling, and Nickerson expects there to be more to celebrate this year, even with his star in redshirt.