Bratland authors a Coast Guard wrestling success story

Coach Kevin Bratland has brought a winning culture to the Coast Guard Academy wrestling program, which is ranked nationally (No. 16 in the latest Division III poll) for the first time in recent memory. (Tim Martin/Day File Photo)
Coach Kevin Bratland has brought a winning culture to the Coast Guard Academy wrestling program, which is ranked nationally (No. 16 in the latest Division III poll) for the first time in recent memory. (Tim Martin/Day File Photo)

New London — During his first practice as Coast Guard Academy wrestling coach, Kevin Bratland served up a sneak peek of the future.

The Bears were introduced to a whole new level of intensity.

"I remember the first practice he put us through," senior Daniel Fiorvanti said Thursday. "It was unlike anything we've ever been through. We knew he meant business. And we knew he was going to make us better. We were all on board."

It was the kick in the seat of the pants that the program needed.

From that day in 2014 forward, the Bears have progressively improved to the point that they're ranked in the national polls for the first time in recent memory, checking in at No. 16. They're closing in on their third straight successful season after failing to post a winning record in 14 straight seasons prior to Bratland's arrival.

"Without a doubt, coach Bratland came in here in 2014 and really created a culture," Fiorvanti said. "Since then, we've really embraced it. We're not going to stop until we're national champions."

It's never been about the scoreboard for Bratland, who was a two-time NCAA Division III All-American at Wartburg College in Iowa.

"The biggest thing coming in, it wasn't really looking at wins and losses and where we should be," Bratland said. "Building a championship culture is what you need and getting guys to live a championship lifestyle. There's obviously things that go into that. It's just doing things the right way."

It wasn't like the program was a complete mess when he arrived on at the academy. The Bears had some talent but their record didn't reflect their ability. He found a receptive group of athletes who were eager to buy into his philosophy.

"They wanted to be good," Bratland said. "They were tired of being the doormat for teams to just come and stomp them."

Bratland started by building his team's confidence. He regularly talked to his wrestlers about giving an all-out effort on a consistent basis.

In his first season, Coast Guard went 13-6 in dual meets and beat rival Merchant Marine Academy for the first time since 2007.

"It's very simple. I'm not bringing in anything that's rocket science," Bratland said. "It's just getting a group of guys to believe in something and to believe together. When you have that, it's very powerful for them.

"So not only are they wrestling for themselves, they're wrestling for their team, their family and for the Coast Guard. To believe in that is very powerful for them to go out and give a tremendous effort every match because everybody is counting on them and they know that."

The wrestlers that stuck around after Bratland's eye-opening first day practice are seeing their hard work and commitment pay off.

Take junior Chris Sullivan.

Sullivan is a prime example of a program success story, becoming one of the top wrestlers in New England in the fiercely competitive 157-pound weight class. He owns a 24-5 record and will have a decent shot to qualify for the NCAA Division III tournament.

"He fits the mold," Bratland said. "He goes out and he fights hard for seven minutes. He clearly has some good techniques and skills, but he's got a lot of heart and a lot of pride."

The Bears also have enjoyed success, going 8-4 in dual meets and recently placing third at the New England Duals Championships behind No. 3 Johnson & Wales and No. 7 Roger Williams.

Bratland loves his team's competitive spirit.

"Win, lose or draw, they're battling," Bratland said. "There's never a lack from effort from these guys."

They'll complete the regular season next Wednesday by hosting Merchant Marine. Then they'll prepare for the NCAA Division III Northeast Regional on Feb. 25-26.

Whatever happens in upcoming matches, the program is clearly on the rise.

"I've seen a huge difference," Sullivan said. "When I first came in, the attitude wasn't as intense. A lot of people didn't take it seriously. Some people quit. ... The recruiting classes have been great. Now it's a lot more business-like."

g.keefe@theday.com

Coast Guard Academy's Chris Sullivan, top, tries to gain control during his 157-pound match against Springfield College's Zach Joseph during the New England Division III Dual Championships on Jan. 22 at Johnson & Wales in Providence. (Bradley E. Clift/Coast Guard athletics)
Coast Guard Academy's Chris Sullivan, top, tries to gain control during his 157-pound match against Springfield College's Zach Joseph during the New England Division III Dual Championships on Jan. 22 at Johnson & Wales in Providence. (Bradley E. Clift/Coast Guard athletics)

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