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Position and Intensity: Keys to the Next Step

November 5, 2009
|  Lynchburg, Va.
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Frankie Gayeski is one of three team captains head coach Jesse Castro will be looking toward for leadership throughout the 2009-10 season.

Frankie Gayeski is one of three team captains head coach Jesse Castro will be looking toward for leadership throughout the 2009-10 season.

When Flames head coach Jesse Castro made his first appearance back on Liberty Mountain as Liberty's third wrestling coach, Castro quickly made a bold and somewhat brash statement.

After being introduced for the first time as the man charged with bringing back one of Liberty's more successful programs after a 12-year hiatus, Castro made his short and long terms visions for the program known publicly during a Flames Club luncheon.

The skipper told the group of athletics financial supporters that he not only wanted to rekindle the program's previous accomplishments, but he wanted to do it in a hurry.

"When I spoke at my first Flames Club luncheon after returning, I told them that we were going to win the [NCAA] East Regional title in our first year back," reflected Castro.

For most present that fateful afternoon, the statement was just a passing comment, but for Castro, it was his own personal charge and one he was able to live up to.

After dusting off the mats following more than a decade away from action, Castro was able to quickly assemble a group that made his vision become a reality.

The Flames managed to take the NCAA East Regional by storm at the event hosted by Duquesne in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 2007, capturing four weight class titles and the earnest respect of the national wrestling community with the first of Liberty's three-straight championships.

The following two seasons, Castro, who has been twice named NCAA East Regional Coach of the Year and was last year's D1collegewrestling.com East Region Coach of the Year, backed up his charge, reeling off two more NCAA East Regional titles.

During the three-year run, Castro has seen 14 different grapplers capture a title in their own individual weight class, punching their ticket to the NCAA national championships.

Over the last three years, Liberty ranks among the nation's best in terms of sending wrestlers to the nation's premier event, as there are only 28 other Division I programs who have sent more wrestlers to the national championships than the Flames.

Spotlighting the three-year run was the 2007-08 season, when Liberty finished No. 51 in the country, thanks to a pair of grapplers scraping their way to the Round of 16.

Tim Harner was the first to do so, as he etched his name in Liberty's wrestling annals at 141 pounds, helping him post 94 wins along the way in a Liberty singlet.

The other Flame to accomplish the feat returns as one of three team captains this year and will have two more years to add to his already impressive resume, after redshirting last year to concentrate on his academic endeavors.

Chad Porter matched Harner's run in his last trek out onto the competitive collegiate mats, advancing to the "Sweet 16" rounds at the 2008 national championship at 165 pounds.

The redshirt junior comes into the 2009-10 season with a 61-32 two-year tally and was preseason ranked No. 16 by D1collegewrestling.com in his weight class.

Porter, along with fellow team captains Shaun Smith (157 pounds) and Frankie Gayeski (149 pounds), have the daunting task of continuing the now growing tradition that is becoming Liberty wrestling.

The trio will be looked upon to lead a much younger Flames roster, than last year's listing, which no longer has the likes of Harner, Christian Smith and Chris Daggett among its available wrestlers.

The aforementioned three grapplers managed to win 195 matches during their three seasons on Liberty Mountain. Smith and Harner both advanced to the national championships each of their three years with the program, while Daggett finally made the trek to last year's national event in St. Louis during his final go around.

Castro now has given the mantle of leadership and the task of showing a much younger squad what it now means to be a Liberty wrestler to Porter, Smith and Gayeski.

"Losing such great seniors was certainly a hit to the program," commented Castro when asked about what he is expecting from this year's squad. "I am a little bit uncertain in how this younger team is going to set up and perform this year.

"After watching them train this fall, I'm encouraged and confident that they are going to step up and fill the gaps left by our seniors," continued Castro. "However, they are still untried and untested.

"The leadership that I've seen from these three has been exemplary," added Castro. "Frankie is the more vocal leader, and he seems to be setting the charge. But Shaun is certainly stepping up as well, as you can tell that he has been more assertive than we've seen in previous years."

Besides looking for leadership from Porter, Smith and Gayeski, Castro decided to bring a change in philosophy on his coaching staff, spearheaded by the addition of new assistant coach Joe Pantaleo.
Pantaleo, the uncle of Flames 133-pounder Joe Pantaleo who he shares the same name with, brings with him that next level of success Castro wants his wrestlers to find.

During his competitive days on the mat, Pantaleo was a two-time All-American at Michigan, where the 158-pounder finished second at the national championships in 1988 and 1989.

Pantaleo has brought with him a new mindset to the Flames wrestling program, as Castro wanted a coaching partner who could carry on his new theme of intensity and position.

"We have had some success, but in order for us to take another step up that ladder, we needed to pick up our level of intensity," stated Castro. "Coach Pantaleo has really helped our guys pick up their level of intensity and he has brought a more aggressive style of wrestling to Liberty – one that has our guys in better position throughout the entire seven minutes of the match."

With the addition of Pantaleo to the staff, along with the experience of Porter, Smith and Gayeski ready to lead a youthful Flames roster, Liberty is set to open its fourth season back on the mats – one Castro hopes will help push his program to the next level of competition.

A Brief Weight Class Spotlight
125 Pounds

Castro feels that this beginning weight class could be key to the program's goal of having a balanced lineup. Liberty wrestled nearly 70 percent of its 2008-09 dual meet season without fielding a wrestler at 125 pounds, as Joe Pantaleo suffered a season-ending injury at the Virginia Duals last January.
Prior to the injury, the rookie had posted an impressive 11-7 record at some of the more prestigious tournaments in the country.

"Seeing our guys pull off wins against such established programs like George Mason and Appalachian State without a 125-pounder was nothing short of impressive," stated Castro. "With Joe and freshman Jonathan Childress, I think we have good depth at this weight class this season."

133 Pounds
T.J. Mitchell is going to be asked to fill the vacancy left open by three-time national qualifier Christian Smith at 133 pounds. In preparation for the season and to give him as much time as possible to take to the mats for Liberty, Mitchell redshirted last year during Smith's senior year.

As a freshman in 2007-08, the Hazlet, N.J., native finished the year with a 13-17 record. "T.J. proved himself to be pretty effective as a freshman, after taking third in the Virginia State Intercollegiates," said Castro.

141 Pounds
Like Mitchell, Scott Clymer has big shoes to fill, as he will be taking over as the starter at 141 pounds, after four-time national qualifier Tim Harner graduated.

In his time with the program, the redshirt sophomore has already posted more than 20 victories as a backup to Harner, spotlighted by a sixth-place finish at the Brockport/Oklahoma Gold Tournament to open his collegiate career. "Scott is a ‘gamer' and as a former Pennsylvania state champion, I am very confident in his ability," continued Castro.

149 Pounds
Moving up the weight class listings, Liberty begins a three-class stretch that is laced with experience, beginning with Frankie Gayeski at 149 pounds. In his first year with the program after transferring from Lehigh, the NCAA East Regional runner-up finished with 12 victories, including 11 wins after being moved to the 149-pound weight class midway through the year.

"I truly believe that Frankie has the talent and ability to place at nationals if he believes in himself that he can do it," added Castro on his senior captain.

157 Pounds
Shaun Smith brings the Flames the most recent national qualifying experience back to the roster, as the senior made his first trek to the national championship last year. He closed out the year with seven-straight victories en route to the title at the Regionals at 157 pounds, giving him 44 career wins coming into his final go around with the program.

"Shaun is a former NCAA national qualifier and I've got the utmost confidence in him closing out his career strong," remarked Castro as his second team captain.

165 Pounds
Chad Porter anchors the middle of Castro's lineup at 165 pounds, returning to the active lineup for two more years of competition after redshirting last year. During his first two years, Porter helped the Flames capture their first two NCAA East Regional team titles, winning 61 bouts and making two trips individually to the national championships as a freshman and sophomore.

"Chad is our premier wrestler," commented Castro. "Ranked No. 16 nationally at 165 pounds, I'm expecting great things from him this season."

174 Pounds
Depth seems to be the key at 174 pounds for the Flames, as Liberty returns two grapplers with experience to the lineup. Aaron Kelley, who earned his first trip to the national championship last year at 174 pounds, is redshirting this season, but will be replaced by a pair of experienced wrestlers.

Nick Knowles and Brad Clark will battle for the starting job most of the season, with Knowles looking like he might get the early nod. Knowles has wrestled in three different weight classes since coming to the East Coast from California, posting 18 wins in two seasons. Clark, on the other hand, finished with 15 wins in Porters stead at 165 pounds, last year.

"I like our depth at 174 pounds, as Nick Knowles and Brad Clark certainly give us some versatility in our lineup in this weight class," commented Castro.

184 Pounds
Castro thought he might have a potential hole in his lineup at 184 pounds prior to the opening of training camp in September. However, transfer Dave Zeigler has given the program a welcomed boost to the weight class.

The former Slippery Rock wrestler posted 163 wins during his prep days at Eastern Lebanon High School in a hotbed of strong wrestling in the state of Pennsylvania. "Dave has surprised me at 184 pounds, and I think he can certainly contribute to our future success," added Castro.

197 Pounds
This weight class has not been a strong suit for the Flames since the program was reinstated three seasons ago, but Castro is hoping Jacoby Johnson and Brandon Lawrence can turn the tide for the Flames at 197 pounds. "I'm hoping we will see Jacoby Johnson step up at this weight class this year," stated Castro.

Johnson was the Flames' leading wrestler in the weight class last year, as the former North Carolina state champion posted 10 victories. He will be pushed throughout the year by Lawrence, as the rookie will be looking for time on the mat following a successful high school career at Eastern Lebanon High School in Myerstown, Pa.

285 Pounds
Two-time national qualifier Patrick Walker has left the heavyweight role to his understudy the last two years, as Josh Pelletier looks to be the Flames' starter. This will be the former two-time New England champion's fourth year with the program, which was spotlighted by an 8-4 record as a freshman.

"Finally, we've got really good depth at heavyweight this year between Josh Pelletier and Andrew Wilson," finished off Castro. Wilson posted a 6-2 record last year at heavyweight in the former Alaska state champion's first year with the program.