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Regional Ready: TheWrestlingMall.com Feature

March 8, 2008
|  Lynchburg, Va.
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Head Coach Jesse Castro and the Liberty Flames will look to repeat as NCAA East Regional champions tomorrow when Liberty hosts its first-ever NCAA Championship event at the Vines Center.

Head Coach Jesse Castro and the Liberty Flames will look to repeat as NCAA East Regional champions tomorrow when Liberty hosts its first-ever NCAA Championship event at the Vines Center.

As Liberty prepares to host its first-ever NCAA Championship event, wrestling web site TheWrestlingMall.com recently sat down with head coach Jesse Castro for a feature piece on his second-year program and to preview the upcoming event.

Castro, last year's NCAA East Regional Coach of the Year, will be looking to lead his squad to a repeat performance, as his team surprised the wrestling world by claiming the NCAA East Regional title during Liberty's first year back to the mats since 1994.

Liberty sent four grapplers (Christian Smith, Tim Harner, Chad Porter and Patrick Walker) to Ann Arbor, Mich., last year to compete at the NCAA National Championship and the Flames hope to send more when they welcome five other programs to Lynchburg for the regional event.

Along with Liberty, wrestlers from Delaware, Duquesne, Gardner-Webb, Millersville and Wagner will be looking to claim 11 total tickets to this year's NCAA national event in St. Louis, Mo. On, Sunday, 10 weight class winners and one wild card will earn their right to compete against the nation's best on March 20-22 at the NCAA National Championship.

The opening whistle sounds tomorrow at 2 p.m., inside the Vines Center for the first session, while the championship round is slated to begin at 6:30 p.m. For more information about this year's NCAA East Regional Championship, please visit our Regional site by clicking here.

Web Site Feature from www.TheWrestlingMall.com  

Liberty and Wrestling For All: Second-Year Division I Program Making Progress

The Liberty wrestling program may only be in its second year, but it is already among the East Region elite. Now head coach Jesse Castro and the rest of the Flames are setting their goals on something higher – becoming a top 25 team.

By Andrew Berglund – TWM Freelance Writer

A little under three years ago, Jesse Castro, the former Liberty University NAIA All-American and the school's first four-time national champion in the history of the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association (NCCAA), was visiting the Lynchburg, Virginia campus with his family. He wanted to show them the place that had grown to be so special for him for him as an athlete in the late 1970's and as an assistant coach into the 1980's after he left Santa Clara, California as a teenager.

"I was on campus just visiting the school with my family visiting the Vines Center and the arena with my family and I wanted to show my family my all-American picture on the wall," Castro recollects. "A guy came up to me and said, ‘aren't you Jesse Castro who graduated in 1981?' And I said yeah. And he said, ‘it's a shame this wrestling program dropped. How would you like to have a meeting with Dr. Falwell?'"

Dr. Jerry Falwell, the world renowned Evangelical Christian pastor, had founded Liberty University back in 1971. Falwell passed away May 15 of last year, but not before establishing a premier university that now has over 14,000 undergraduate and nearly 6,000 postgraduate students furthering their education on Liberty's campus.

But with all those students and all the pride in the university itself, something was missing, and had been since 1994. That's when the wrestling program, which had been in existence since 1974, went dormant.

The late Dr. Jerry Falwell wanted it back.

On that same visit to Lynchburg with his family, Castro found himself sitting face-to-face with Dr. Falwell a mere few hours later.

"Dr. Falwell sits me in his office and says, ‘what do you think Jesse, about starting this program back up?"

"Dr. Falwell, that would be a wonderful thing," Castro replied.

"Would you consider taking it?" Falwell asked.

At this point, Castro was an established high school coach in south New Jersey at Kingsway Regional High School in Woolwich, where he had been serving from 1997 as a health and physical education teacher (grades 9-12), head wrestling coach, head cross country coach and head tennis coach (1997-2001).

During his eight seasons at the helm of the Kingsway Regional wrestling program, Castro guided the program to a 124-29 record, five conference and South Jersey sectional championships, four district titles and a state championship in 1998.

Eleven of his graduates at Kingsway Regional, including All-American Brandon Becker of Indiana, currently wrestle at the collegiate level.

Still, he couldn't help be excited about the opportunity at Liberty.

"Over a course of two years at the time, we would make contact with Dr. Falwell," Castro said. "Finally he tells the former athletic director, Thom Park, ‘Listen, let's get Castro in here for an interview.' I came in for an interview and you just don't tell Dr. Falwell no."

"If we're going to restart this program, we want you at the helm," Falwell told Castro. And the rest is history according to Castro.

The university set up the Liberty Foundation, which became involved in raising money and providing constant communication with the administration throughout a five-year period. Over 350 alumni that have graduated from Liberty were the key reasons for the reinstatement of the program.

"We raised $90,000 toward the program," Castro said, as he spent the year recruiting athletes, hiring a coaching staff and working on a schedule to rejoin Division I wrestling. "A lot of prayer and networking went into the reinstatement of this program. I say that quite sincerely because literally we had to move mountains to get it back. We finally made breakthrough."

In its first year back as a wrestling program, Castro led the Flames to a 16-8 dual meet record, a perfect 5-0 record at home and a team championship at the NCAA East Regionals.
Liberty head coach Jesse Castro is a former Liberty University NAIA All-American and the school's first four-time national champion in the history of the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association (NCCAA)

From dust to distinction in just a few years time was a special feat for the Liberty program.

"Absolutely, I was pleasantly surprised," Castro said of the Flames amazingly successful first year back. "Our first meet against Anderson College, a Division III school down in South Carolina at (Virginia) Tech at a quad meet, I wasn't sure what we had. I knew we had a pretty good recruiting class, but I had never seen them wrestle. I didn't know how they'd do in college wrestling. When we won that match, I was elated because I knew we weren't going to go o-for. I was excited. We were very green. As far as the success of last year, it was a surprise. I give the glory to God on that."

Liberty is 12-11-1 on the season this year, but has already proven to be once again the head of the class in the East Regional. They swept league counterparts Millersville, Duquesne, Delaware State and Gardner-Webb last month at the East Regional Duals.

"The level of our competition has exponentially increased in terms of caliber of competition," Castro said in comparing last year to this year's calendar. "Our schedule was pretty much loaded this year, two of the teams being top twenty teams in Illinois and Indiana and wrestling Big Ten schools in dual meets like Purdue. It's been an adjustment for us."

The schedule has been stacked with visits to the Reno Tournament of Champions, The Midlands and the Southern Scuffle.

"Out in the Midlands, a couple of our kids did really well. Patrick Walker, our heavyweight, who was a match shy of placing, wrestled very well,' Castro said. "Christian Smith won three matches and wrestled very well. For the most part, I wasn't pleased, but there were some bright spots. Those tournaments were key for us because it showed us what we needed to do."

"But as far as a .500 record, I consider that a success and I measure that a success as opposed to what we were doing last year," he said. "For example, tying returning defending ACC champs NC State, where they literally blitzed us last year. We didn't win one match against them. Last year, we lost to UNC Greensboro, and we beat them this year, who happened to beat Virginia Teach, and that's a good measuring stick for us. That's an in-state school that is on its way up. It's a pretty good indicator that we're on the right path."

"The bottom line is our success is a blessing from above."

Other key contributors for the Flames include: Two-time NCAA qualifiers Tim Harner (27-10 at 141), Christian Smith (16-14 at 133), Chad Porter (24-17 at 165) and Aaron Kelley (24-18 at 174).

Led by Walker, who has won 13 matches in a row and has upped his record to 29-9 (19-1 in duals), the Flames have some sleepers in the lineup that could present potential matchup problems down the line at the NCAA's in March.

Two-time NCAA qualifiers Tim Harner (27-10 at 141) and Christian Smith (16-14 at 133) help set the table for Liberty. Upper weights Chad Porter (24-17 at 165), Aaron Kelley (24-18 at 174) and Walker help solidify the rest of the lineup, which as been hit hard by injuries this season.

"All four of those guys bring an experience into the tournament and have a shot at doing something," Castro said. "You know as well as I do that every single match is a dog fight (at the NCAA's); it's no holds barred. We are hoping to just improve on last year's performance."

"A huge difference was our depth is much stronger this year," Castro said. "Last year, we were a first year program and if we had an injury, our drop off was huge. My backup kids are toeing the line. I have yet to have my complete lineup at one time, all year long."

"Sometimes, I was out four starters. But what has been good about this, is my backup kids, my freshmen that have stepped in, have continually improved and have won some key matches against some good teams like George Mason, like UNC Greensboro and keeping matches close."

Freshmen student-athletes are choosing Liberty from high schools across the country.

"What we have going for us is that we are the only Division I Evangelical Christian School out there at this time," Castro said. "And the kids that are coming to us are attracted to that. We are just starting to get our name out. We had our first California recruit for example and we're looking at another and we're starting to become nationally known that we have a unique situation here."

Another reason they are choosing the University is because of Castro, who has seen success every where he's gone, including his wrestling start as a teenager at Liberty.

"Like anyone else, there are very few original thoughts; everyone is influenced by those around them," Castro said. "My mentors, at high school, Coach Aragon, my college coach Bob Bonheim, Don Schuler, the former coach here, Gene Davis, Olympic bronze medalist, who was my coach with Athletes in Action. These are all men that I have admired and looked up to and formulated my philosophy around their teaching and what they've done in my life."

"One of the reason I was so apt to take this position, as an 18-year-old young boy coming from California to Virginia, I know what this program meant to me the five years that I spent here---what it meant to me spiritually, what it meant to me socially, and in every other way," he said. "I wanted to be a part of that."

He's taken that belief and that philosophy and that faith and ignited a Liberty Flames wrestling program that is competing on the same level as Virginia Tech and NC State. And that's only after just one full year as a program after over a decade of dormancy.

"My philosophy is ‘whatever you do, do it to unto the Lord not unto man.'" Castro said. "In other words, what we are going to do here at Liberty University, if our motivation is to serve something higher than ourselves, than there is no failure in that---if we're giving everything that we can. And that's what I am trying to get out of my kids. We do it unto a higher calling and that's what we are trying to establish. And if the kids buy into that, they are not going to be afraid of hard work and paralyzed by pressure."

"The bottom line is to get better," Castro reiterated. "That's what our goal is. I want to be in the top 20 in this country. That's what we are scribing for and by God's grace we're going to do it."