Hard work results in Flames' rapid rise to NCWA prominence
January 21, 2016 | Lynchburg, Va.
"In every wrestling match, there comes a point — a juncture, if you will — where you want to quit. And at that juncture, a decision is made: to forge through and hang on, or to let up and to give in."
These words, spoken by Liberty University wrestling Head Coach Jesse Castro, came at the end of an impassioned speech about the character his sport builds in his athletes. To hear the story of the team he leads, though, it's easy to apply the statement to the program itself.
When Liberty wrestling dropped down from an NCAA Division I (DI) sport to the club level in 2012, it was a struggle for Castro or his athletes to see the positives.
"That first year was difficult," Castro admitted, "in the sense that because of the reclassification it was so difficult motivating our DI athletes to return and stay on the team. I lost about 60-70 percent of my roster, and I didn't really have a chance to recruit for that National Collegiate Wrestling Association (NCWA) reclassification, so it was tough for the team."
Intense and relentlessly passionate about the sport, though, Castro drew from the perseverance instilled in him on the mat and focused his mostly new team of athletes on achieving success for the glory of God.
The league and conference may have been reclassified, but the expectations and competitive drive remained the same within the Flames' program with Castro and his handful of returning student-athletes setting the standard of excellence. The coach worked his club team with the same vigor as he had in years past, taking the team to open NCAA tournaments whenever possible and pushing them beyond their perceived training limits.
"We had never won the NCWA national tournament," Castro said. "So from Day One, that was our goal."
The team got to work, claiming the Mid-Atlantic Conference championship and sending five athletes to the NCWA National Championships, winning two individual titles, in just its first year at the club level.
"My freshman year was our first year in club, and we actually had a lot of guys from the NCAA team move in with us, so we had a solid team," said 2015 graduate Keyshaun Ward, who placed fourth in the 184-pound weight class at last season's NCWA National Championships. "Not to say all NCWA matches are not as intense as NCAA — you've got guys with the potential to wrestle at the NCAA DI level everywhere — but those higher-level teams have two-a-days every day of the year and there's just more commitment.
"Throughout the season Coach Castro put us through a lot of NCAA tournaments, side tournaments, where you have top programs competing, so we could see what it's like and what it takes to wrestle against a DI school."
Pleased but not satisfied with their first NCWA postseason showing, the next year the Flames reached higher.
In former Liberty 149-pound wrestler Josh Sanders' freshman season in 2013-14, he immediately noticed the competition level within the Liberty program
"This is the best team I've ever been a part of," said Sanders, a two-time national qualifier. "We're brothers. When I say we fight, we fight. When I say we love each other, we definitely love each other. But as far as competitiveness goes? There's nothing like it."
Sanders laughed and motioned to the mats and equipment surrounding him in the Flames' training facility.
"When we're all in this room, you'd think we hated each other. That's how competitive we are," he stated. "If I'm wrestling against somebody on this team, I want to beat them. I want to be better, because we have so many All-Americans on this team and we want to be the best. It's naturally going to create some animosity — it brings out the best in us."
Better, but not best. When freshman Ryan Diehl arrived on the scene the following year, the Flames were hungrier than ever for success in their third year at club level.
"The level of competition is up there — it's really tough, and it gets you good experience," Diehl said of the program, echoing Sanders. "I knew they were coming from an NCAA DI program and that some of their NCAA team was still wrestling at club level, so they were really good and we just built the program off that. That's how this team is; the rebuild and dynamic, just how everyone works together, keeps the competition tough and we have to overcome it."
That season, the Flames claimed third the NCWA National Duals and finished runner-up at the National Championships, with their MAC tournament title streak extended to three straight years and their eyes fixed on championships for the upcoming year.
It was former team member Josh Llopez's freshman season, and high-level success was by that point a proud tradition.
"I was supposed to go to Maryland, but things didn't work out academically and my coach recommended Liberty," said Llopez, who along with Diehl joined the Terrapins this fall. "It was the best second option for me; and for a club program, in terms of outside competition, it was pretty much what I expected. But the talent inside this room, specifically, it's phenomenal."
Llopez straightened, his attitude and tone taking on a level of respect.
"You would never believe how many NCAA DI athletes you could probably have from this room. The talent is through the roof at this school. Our whole team is competitive — you see it throughout our lives even outside of wrestling — and I think we really capitalized on that this year."
The hard work the team had put in — from Ward to Sanders to Diehl to Llopez and every teammate in between — paid off in the form of a fourth MAC tournament title, a NCWA National Duals championship and the NCWA National Championship crown.
Of all the factors that came into play in the Flames' unprecedented rise as a club wrestling program, though, every athlete agreed that Castro was the sparkplug and the backbone that spurred and supported success.
"A team can only go as far as its head coach," Sanders said, "and Coach Castro? He's a great head coach."
Ward and Diehl noted their leader's dynamic intensity and ability to relate to the wide variety of personalities on the team with ease, pulling the best from every individual and motivating the group as a whole.
"Coach Castro is the best," Llopez agreed. "He's able to talk to you personally apart from wrestling, on the mat he's able to get the best work out of you, and he comes with a kind heart. More than a coach, he's kind of like a second dad."
For Castro, though, making any decision except to forge ahead at a difficult juncture in his wrestling journey was never an option. The team is his passion, and his pride in his athletes is evident.
"Of course, we had a lot of obstacles when we made that transition, but looking back, I can see the progression we made each year," Castro said, smiling. "(Last) year, I told many people all we had to do as a coaching staff was stand back and not screw up, because we had that much talent, to be honest with you."
This season, despite the departure of some athletes like Diehl and Llopez and graduation of Ward, the tradition of high-level competition and achievement lives on in Liberty's Wiseman Wrestling Room. The Flames look forward to defending their titles in mere days, starting this Friday and Saturday at the NCWA National Duals in Dalton, Ga.
Even when the going gets tough, they'll keep pressing on.