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2010-11 Wrestling Outlook
As three-time NCAA East Region Coach of the Year Jesse Castro prepares his squad for the 2010-11 wrestling campaign, there are mixed feelings of confidence and uncertainty when looking through the lineup. While the Flames will have five former NCAA national qualifiers in action this season, some remaining spots will lie in the hands of new, untested athletes. Despite the mixture in experience, the Flames look to push the envelope this season and step up another level toward the goal of becoming a Top 25 program.
Now in the fifth year at the helm of the program, Castro has certainly made the most of the resurgence of the wrestling team, following a 12-year hiatus. In four years, the Flames have seen 20 grapplers move to the NCAA National Championships, all the while capturing four consecutive team championships at the NCAA East Regionals. In terms of sending wrestlers to the national event, Liberty ranks among the best, with only 23 Division I programs sending more than the Flames in the past four years.
While Castro was forward about the success he wanted for the program upon its reinstatement, he feels blessed for the progress that has been made already. "The expediency with which we've developed our program has been remarkable to say the least. For us to accomplish what we have in such a short period of time is beyond the explanation of just me as a coach," Castro commented on the first four years back on Liberty Mountain. Castro then added, "Truly I believe that the Lord has his hand on our program. It's phenomenal how fast this has happened." Despite the success, Coach Castro and his staff realize they're still working towards their goals. "In light of where we're trying to get, we're still at the lower rungs, but we're making progress."
In the effort to move forward on the national stage this season, the Flames will rely heavily upon their returning wrestlers who have experienced success before. As Liberty brings back five national qualifiers, and redshirts a sixth, Coach Castro realizes how important they'll be for leadership and producing for the team, remarking, "We're going to be looking to these guys for consistency through the year in our duals and tournaments." The active NCAA-qualifying returners include Jonathan Childress (125 pounds), Joe Pantaleo (133 pounds), Scott Clymer (141 pounds), Chad Porter (165 pounds) and Aaron Kelley (174 pounds), who made his trip to the national event in 2008.
While some of the remaining spots will most likely be contested by athletes that are untried at the Division I level, Castro has created some expectations based on what he has seen during training throughout the fall. The Flames maintain a stringent practice and strengthening schedule, which is no place for the weak of heart, and the newest members of the squad have caught Castro's eye with their dedication and efforts. "I'm so excited about the recruits that we had come in, they are really working hard," commented Castro.
Newcomers to the program may have held state championship titles in their respective states, but they have yet to be competitive at the collegiate level. Castro continued, "We're very untested in some weight classes. We have unknowns still." Despite having a mix of experience and youth, Castro looks forward to having the season get underway, saying, "If our work has any reflection on our success, I'm excited about it."
The hard work in practice will show in the results, as Liberty looks to face a formidable schedule this year. In their opening weekend alone, Liberty will match up with the 2009 ACC Champion, Maryland, as well as a solid program in West Virginia. Shortly thereafter, Liberty looks to defend its title at the Keystone Classic, which will be a challenge with the addition of Big Ten school Northwestern, and top 25 program, Edinboro, to the event. Other top events in the country which the Flames will take part in include the Reno Tournament of Champions (Dec. 19), the Southern Scuffle (Dec. 29-30), and the Virginia Duals (Jan. 7-8), which often include several top programs in the country. Additionally, the Liberty will face the likes of Chattanooga, George Mason and Virginia Tech in duals on the season.
Assisting Coach Castro on the mats are assistant coach, Joe Pantaleo, and graduate assistant coach, Joe Kemmerer, both of whom are entering their second year with the program, and provide different dimensions for the squad.
Pantaleo brings a large amount of intensity to the program and leads the grapplers in their conditioning and training. In just a year with the program, "He's taken it to a higher level. He's demanding things of these guys now that we weren't doing at the end of the year last year" stated Castro on the importance of Pantaleo and his efforts. Castro also commented how it isn't just on the mat that Pantaleo makes a difference, "He brings high intensity, high expectation. We see the discipline of wrestlers in the program vastly improving from just last year."
Kemmerer, on the other hand, plays a large role for the program by training hands-on with the squad. As a representative for the United States in the World Championships, Castro stated that "Having him on the mat, hands-on with these guys is huge. He's actually showing these guys what it takes to reach a higher level."
Last season, Castro and his staff held a theme of intensity and position for the squad. This year the theme will continue and the staff will look to raise the bar. The training has much to do with this theme and is evident through the new standards that are being set. "Our kids wrestled two, thirty-minute matches; we've never done that before" Castro reported. This type of training will allow the Flames to "maintain a higher baseline of intensity throughout the course of a seven-minute match," as Castro stated.
With a mixture of knowledge and questions for the upcoming season, Castro, his staff and squad are doing what they can to move on toward being a top program in the nation. As the returning Flames have tasted the success of reaching the NCAA National Championships, they look to get there again, bring some more teammates with them, and create some havoc when they get there.
A Brief Weight Class Spotlight
Just two years after wrestling nearly 70 percent of the schedule without fielding a wrestler at 125 pounds, Castro likes the depth at this position for the Flames. "I'm really excited about this weight class, because I think our depth there is probably better than it's ever been," stated Castro.
While Jonathan Childress is the returning NCAA qualifier in this spot, maintaining the starting role may not be simple with qualified candidates stacking up behind him. Two-time state champion of Georgia, Joel Stafford will be one challenger at the position.
Coach Castro also feels that there could be two more challengers at this position, with Justin Branham showing toughness early in the year and Robert Jillard, a two-time New Jersey state placewinner, in the mix.
At 133 pounds, the Flames bring back two competent returners. Joe Pantaleo is one returner, who is also a returning NCAA qualifier. Last season, Pantaleo posted a 15-10 mark for the Flames on his way to the NCAA East Regional title at this weight class.
T.J. Mitchell is another competitor at 133 pounds, and has matched up closely with Pantaleo in past wrestle-offs.
A third Flame to watch at this weight class is Nathan Nelson. The Poplar, Wis., native has caught the coaches' eyes in training, especially by running an 11-minute two-mile.
The 141-pound weight class is a spot which may be the most loaded as far as numbers for the Flames. Redshirt freshman, Seth Hicks and junior Joey Montgomery are expected to be the top contenders in this weight class, but Castro also advises that there are some newcomers who could be up to the task as well.
Castro acknowledges Mickelton, N.J., native Kurtis Becker as a "darkhorse," and someone to keep an eye on.
Additionally at 141 pounds, Daniel Pritz brings along a state championship from Florida, while locally raised Bobby Leffew holds All-American honors during his time at Liberty Christian Academy.
While Scott Clymer is a returning national qualifier at 141 pounds, the Flames will use him this season at the 149-pound spot, where Frankie Gayeski took care of business last season. Clymer has posted 41 wins in a Liberty singlet and will look to add to that number while moving up a weight class during his redshirt junior season.
Also available at this position will be Justin Krop, who Castro admits has "improved tremendously," along with transfer Rich Bushby from UNC Greensboro. Miguel Rodriguez and Justin Smith round out the weight class, and will also compete for time at another deep position for the Flames.
Coach Castro is excited to have Julian Colon back for the Flames at the 157-pound weight class this season. Two years ago, Colon was bumped up two weight classes, and came away as the regional runner-up at 174 pounds. After redshirting last year, Castro welcomes his presence and describes him as "extremely tough, extremely strong, and has great positioning."
Senior Peter Crawford and freshman Eric Reger, who holds All-American honors while at Delsea Regional, will also be available for the Flames in another competitive weight class.
Chad Porter acts, once again, as the mainstay at 165 pounds for the Flames. As the active win leader on the roster, Porter holds 84 career wins for the Flames. In his redshirt senior campaign the Parkersburg, W. Va., native will look to add to that total, in addition to making his fourth trip to the national event.
Junior Eli Sanchez and freshman Marcus Neilson of St. Frederick, Md., will also be available to compete at the 165-pound position.
Moving through the weight classes, at 174 pounds, the Flames begin to have more questions and concerns regarding depth. At this point, Royal Brettrager II will look to compete for Liberty in this weight class. "I'm excited about him. Even though he's a freshman, he is extremely tough," Castro stated while looking through the lineup. Brettrager hails from Kirtland, Ohio, and was a state placewinner during his senior season.
While the Flames have a returning national qualifier in place at 184 pounds, Aaron Kelley is currently the lone man in this position which obviously holds concerns regarding depth. This will also be a step up for Kelley, as he has competed at the 174-pound weight class in his previous two active seasons. Kelley returns to the Flames' active lineup after redshirting last season. In his previous seasons, Kelley has produced 63 victories in a Liberty singlet.
For Castro, the 197-pound weight class has not been a strength since the reinstatement of the program, and this year it will face the Flames with more questions. While there are returners in sophomore Jonathan Weber and junior Aaron Thompson, neither has seen extended mat time for the Flames.
In the final spot on the lineup, Castro has confidence in his returner, Josh Pelletier. "I feel good about Pelletier. Last year he had a really good record, and competed with some of the best wrestlers in the country." Pelletier posted a 15-8 record during his junior season and finished the year as the runner-up in the NCAA East Regionals.
Additionally, Richmond, Va., native, Richard Wright will be competing for mat time at the last weight class.