On the Rebound: Old Dominion Wrestling
Feb. 21, 2005
It's an unseasonably warm afternoon in Norfolk, Va., and inside the Old Dominion University Fieldhouse, assistant wrestling coach is barking out instructions at a fever pace as 21 wrestlers just started practice.
"Handfight! (Adam) Wright, you're losing to a heavyweight! Cover more ground!" Pritts yells.
Every program in the country is gearing up for the stretch run and the rapidly approaching conference tournaments. Old Dominion is no different.
But something is different.
"See yourself there! St. Louis!" coach Steve Martin yells as the team finishes practice.
"Get the takedown! DO IT!" Martin continues. "It's in FIVE weeks. He will not score a point. DO IT!"
To say Old Dominion has gone through a major change might be an understatement. The Monarchs, never higher than sixth in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament since the conference expanded, adding the remnants of the East Coast Wrestling Association, the Monarchs are slowly building.
Over a week has past since that warm afternoon and since, two victories have been added to the Monarchs win total, a 27-11 win at VMI and a 40-9 home victory over James Madison. Coming into Sunday's final home dual against George Mason, that slow building process has started to make people notice.
In the past week, the program had a long feature story written in The Virginian-Pilot, one of two major newspapers in the Hampton Roads area and the one that serves the Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Portsmouth area.
Bob Molinaro's feature attracted some attention, as did Andrew Hipps' weekly wrestling recap on TheWrestlingMall.com. Hipps' headline: "Old Dominion: Most Improved Team in the Country?"
A change at the top
Last March, former Olympian and long-time coach Gray Simons announced his retirement and a national search was immediately launched to find his replacement. The administration didn't stray too far from Norfolk, just a short stretch down Interstate 464 to the halls of Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake where Martin had been carving out one of the top wrestling programs in the nation.
With an impressive list of applicants, including Lou Rosselli, Sammie Henson, Chris Bono and Mike Duroe, Old Dominion Athletics Director Jim Jarrett decided on Martin.
In a press conference on June 4, the announcement was made.
"We had a tremendous applicant pool and we went as far as Great Bridge to select our coach," Jarrett said.
A high school coach?
Martin's high school coaching resume is stacked with state championships and an array of wrestlers that went on to compete at Division I programs, but the question everyone seemed to ask was "Why a high school coach."
At Great Bridge, Martin compiled a 306-15-1 record in 13 seasons and had the Wildcats ranked as high as No. 2 in nationally. He's led 11 wrestlers to high school all-American status and two high school national champions. Great Bridge alumni Carl Perry won the 2000 NCAA championship at Illinois.
"He's got such a tremendous record with working with teams and the community. It's a little unique (to go with a high school coach), but it was very easy to make the decision," Jarrett said in June. "We want to look at where we are as base and be top 25 and keep improving," he said.
Just a month after Martin was hired, he didn't stray too far for his first two verbal commitments, Great Bridge's Chris Brown and Bryan LaShomb.
Brown, a Virginia state champion as a junior, has won the Ironman and Beast of the East this season and his stock has risen and is regarded by some as the first "blue-chipper" the Monarchs signed.
LaShomb, a three-time state champion at Currituck, N.C., a scant 10 miles across the Virginia-North Carolina border, is a projected 125-pounder.
Jeff Becker of Slippery Rock, Pa., was the next to come on board, followed by Georgia's Ben Fiacco.
"I think they picked me because of my family's reputation as well as the coaching background that I've experienced in my lifetime. I was coached by the number one high school coach ever, my father, and the number one college coach ever, Dan Gable," Martin said. "As an athlete and as a coach, I've been surrounded by winners. I give a tremendous amount of credit of attaining this job through the community support from the area that overflowed the administration with letters, because I think they realized that I was the guy that could bring the community together and put them in the stands and attract blue-chippers," Martin continued. "Not only locally, but nationally as well."
"Granby and Great Bridge have dominated for so long, I saw no reason why Old Dominion couldn't dominate on the national scene as well," Martin said. "I think we'll draw athletes that want to develop because of the reputation of our coaching staff."
The first season is nearly over: The good and the bad
For the Monarchs, there is just one dual remaining, against intrastate and CAA rival and George Mason.
The schedule didn't see any immediate improvements, other than sending wrestlers to the Missouri Open and The Midlands and a return to the Mat Town USA Invitational in Lock Haven, Pa., where the Monarchs last competed in 2002.
Junior Adam Wright, a solid wrestler at 184 pounds, opened the season knocking off Missouri's Matt Pell, then ranked fifth in the nation en route to making the final.
Wright burst into the national rankings the following week, but dropping matches to Andy Rios of Indiana and Josh Glenn of American dropped him right back out of the national rankings.
Two of Martin's former high school standouts, Christian Staylor and Nick Pullano transferred in during the off season and Staylor, an NCAA qualifier last season as a redshirt freshman at Arizona State, is currently ranked 15th in the nation.
One additional transfer, Shanon Slack, came in with some close losses as a sophomore at Fresno State, but has had some real highs and lows this season.
At one point this season, Slack led the Monarchs in wins and losses. Slack's won 10 matches in a row since a loss to Jon Spires of Ohio University at the Virginia Duals.
Just when it seemed like the program had seen modest success, even under a first-year coach, Martin's former college teammate Terry Brands UT-Chattanooga team was the first-round draw at the Virginia Duals.
The end result wasn't pretty, a 44-0 shellacking at the hands of the Mocs.
Following the Virginia Duals, most of the nation was transfixed on the National Duals in Cleveland which saw Oklahoma State beat Illinois in the finals, but in Fairfax, Va., Old Dominion wrestled in the CAA Duals and finished 4-1.
The team opened with a win over a depleted Rider team, which one week earlier was in the semifinals at the Virginia Duals. Injuries aside, the 26-16 victory over the Broncs was the first in school history, which was followed by a 20-18 victory over Carl Adams' Boston University Terriers, another first in school history.
A 17-16 loss to Drexel was the only blemish on the Monarchs' record that weekend and the squad has lost only once since, a 27-12 loss at home against Hofstra.
Hofstra, despite being in the CAA, hadn't wrestled Old Dominion since 1993. While the match wasn't close, the Monarchs only mustered three takedowns as a team. More emphasis on the slowly part.
A 49-4 conference victory over Campbell followed.
A week later, the Monarchs beat N.C. State for the first time since 1959 in front of nearly 400 fans at the Fieldhouse.
With seven wrestlers notching at least 20 wins and three more with chances to get 30 this season, improvement is noticeable up and down the lineup.
Junior 165-pounder Robby Gosnell lost the starting spot at 165 last year and spent time between 165 and 174 and went 18-15 as a sophomore. This season, Gosnell is 28-8, placing third at Mat Town and fourth at the Missouri Open.
True freshman B.J. Compton signed in the off season before ODU had even named its coach, but he's currently leading the team in falls, with 13 and is 34-11 and has been named CAA Rookie of the Week two straight weeks. Compton could have been in the running for conference Rookie of the Year awards if it wasn't for another stud true freshman in his weight class, Hofstra's Charles Griffin.
Another holdover from the Gray Simons era is junior Adam Wright. The 184-pounder was 30-9 last year and finished third in the CAA and was an alternate for the NCAA championships. Wright is 29-7 this season and spent much of the early season ranked nationally.
"The biggest adjustment was adapting to the mindset of the athletes that we inherited," Martin said. "In order to be successful in wrestling at any level, it has to become a lifestyle. Student-athletes have to place a priority on academics and athletics, with social life a distant third."
Conditioning has played a big role in the Monarchs' 11 victories this season.
"Our athletes are now winning close matches that they wouldn't have won in the past. They are no longer scared to death when they step on the mat against a wrestler from the Big 10 or Big XII, because we have competed against them this year," Martin said.
"The philosophy of conditioning that I learned from coach Gable instilled in his athletes minds and nerve system is being instilled in our athletes on a daily basis at Old Dominion," Martin continued. "This has been demonstrated throughout the course of the year at different times, but especially when we beat teams such as Rider, Boston U. and N.C. State that ODU hadn't done in the history of the program."
But there's still more work that needs to be done. Just as the team seemed to peak, the Virginia Duals loss to Chattanooga gave the Monarch coaching staff a reality check.
"The frustrating part is getting our athletes to realize is they need to constantly score points and fight for position every second of the match, no matter if they're wrestling the NCAA champion or the worst guy in the conference. The approach needs to be the same psychologically for each match," Martin said.
"Technically, we've had to start from scratch in all areas of wrestling. Some major areas that we're focused on are simple things like defense, hand-fighting, chain wrestling, getting off the bottom, turning people and bread-and-butter holds like high-crotches and sweep singles," he said.
That shutout loss to Chattanooga still speaks volumes.
"We've had our share of disappointing losses this year where our kids did not focus on fighting for positioning constantly. Against the good teams, one mistake can cost you an individual match," Martin said. "Psychologically, we've had times where kids did not perform because of their fear of failure. They're just starting to realize that proper preparation will allow them to be able to wrestle and defeat top-notch competition."
After Martin's June hiring, he quickly brought in long-time friend and fellow Granby School of Wrestling instructor Lee Pritts. Spending the last six years helping the University of Missouri wrestling program rise from nothing to a national powerhouse, Pritts had seen a team go from the basement to the top.
Last season, Missouri beat Oklahoma State for the first time in that school's history in an early-season Big XII match.
Now Pritts has to help another team rebuild. But what made ODU attractive?
"The big thing was the administration's heavy support for the program," Pritts said. "The new wrestling room, the increased budget and the support of an increased travel schedule and obviously location for recruiting (were all keys)."
When Pritts first arrived, he settled in Norfolk and then was off to get married, so he was quite rushed in setting up shop in his new digs. Pritts' had some goals lined up, as did Martin. One of which, was getting the team to compete.
"It's not so much the wins and losses, it's when you're wrestling the top level competition and you're competing hard for seven minutes," Pritts said. "Previous years, I've seen Old Dominion and the team tendencies were injury times, stalling calls, getting pinned and giving up bonus points. That's typically from not competing hard."
And comparisons between ODU now and Missouri seven years ago?
"It was almost identical," Pritts said. "As far as the team goes, it's almost like déjà vu."
The holdovers from the previous coaching staff were still present and wrestlers like Gosnell and 174-pounder John Adams have seen increased success.
"It took some time, but I think the biggest thing was they bought into the system and the training and they bought into doing things the right way and they developed an incredible work-ethic," Pritts said. "Anytime you get a team that's going to buy into the system, buy into the training and is going to do the work, you're going to get results."
The rest of the coaching staff was completed with the hiring of Old Dominion's second full-time assistant, Cory Ace, a former All-American at Edinboro and John Testa, a former All-American at Clarion as a volunteer assistant.
"If you look at the guys on our staff, all four of us as competitors whether we won or lost, competed hard. I think that carries off into our personalities as coaches, we teach our athletes how to compete hard," Pritts said.
"I think to have a national powerhouse program, the more coaches you can have the better. The NCAA has everyone limited to four coaches, and it works out for us, since we have a coach for every position," Pritts said. "We have a young staff that can work out with our guys on a regular basis. We have a hands-on staff."
Before this season, the Monarchs only had the budget for one part-time assistant. Last season, ODU grads Jamie Kelly and Jeff Rusak came on under Simons. While they didn't stay on, Kelly, who also applied for the head coaching position, has been a supporter of the program, as has Rusak, who is now the head coach at the Newport News Apprentice School, a trade-school varsity program that competes in the NCWA.
"Obviously Jamie Kelly as a high school coach had a lot of success and they were always in great condition. As a college coach, he was doing the same, and I think that helped out a lot," Pritts said.
Alumni Support & Takedown Club
One of Martin's first actions was setting up a wrestling booster club, something the program had always lacked.
It's first event was a social where fans got the chance to join the club and it was a "meet and greet" with the wrestlers and coaches. Since, numbers for Old Dominion Takedown Club events has been steadily growing.
"The takedown club has sparked a tremendous amount of interest in the wrestling community in the Tidewater area." Martin said.
Its importance isn't overlooked, in fact, its importance is relied upon.
"The booster club is very important because it allows us to enhance the wrestling program's needs," Martin said. "The Takedown Club has allowed us to build a support base with the local community."
"Anytime you're building a national powerhouse, fan support is huge," Pritts added.
"It provides a social setting for fans to meet before and after events, it's allowed you to build your initial fan base," Martin said.
"Bill Calley, ODU alum has helped out tremendously by re-establishing ties with ex-Old Dominion athletes that had lost touch with the program," Martin said. Calley is currently an official in Hampton Roads.
Another backer has been Mike Hage, a part-time Mixed Martial Arts promoter and former wrestler at Norfolk State.
"Mike Hage has tremendous ties with the local business community, which has allowed us to gain considerable financial support," Martin said. "Charlie Church, a local business owner and assistant coach at Norfolk Collegiate School, has helped us bring the Norfolk business community into the picture."
Church has been a big supporter of all of Old Dominion's athletic teams, and his family-owned pest control business, Getem Services, has sat adjacent to the Old Dominion campus since the 1940's.
Parents are also getting involved.
"Diane Branch, the mother of Old Dominion 149-pounder Hunter Davenport, has played a large role in the daily process of organizing socials, golf outings and recruiting membership into the Takedown Club."
Even as far away as the Harrisonburg area, which is JMU territory, another alum has also joined the fray.
"Mark McGowan has helped out our club tremendously not only from a financial standpoint, but he also loves the sport of wrestling and wants it to be very successful at Old Dominion."
There also have been a host of others that have offered their assistance, including long-time Martin supporters.
Community and Fan Support
Four hundred fans might seem small to followers of big-time programs, but in the last seven years, the Monarchs only averaged 50-75 fans per home dual.
In the article in The Virginian-Pilot this past week, Martin told Molinaro, "I have to reach out and promote the program. In this job, you're a P.R. man, too."
"Getting fans in the stands is important because the administration will begin to recognize the sport of wrestling as a revenue-producing sport," Martin said. "Which then will give us the added financial support we need," Ace added.
And the media?
"The media in the Tidewater area has been very helpful, both TV and newspaper coverage has improved tremendously. This in turn has increased our turnout at matches and made the general, non-wrestling public aware that we have lofty goals for our program," Martin said. "In terms of producing outstanding wrestlers, and outstanding student-athletes off an on the mat."
"The public knows now that we have plans to upgrade our schedule to bring in Big 10 and Big XII teams to wrestle in Norfolk, Va.," he said.