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|Brian Smith, Cody Gardner, Ben Askren, Hunter Meys honored by Wrestling International Newsmagazine|
By W.I.N. Magazine
Wrestling International Newsmagazine (W.I.N.) announces four award winners:
Dan Gable Coach of the Year: Brian Smith, Missouri
Junior Dan Hodge Trophy Winner: Cody Gardner, Christianburg (Virginia) High School
Schalles Award Winner: Ben Askren, Missouri
Junior Schalles Award Winner: Hunter Meys, Shenendehowa (New York) High School
The following are biographical sketches on all four winners who were also featured in the latest issue of Wrestling International Newsmagazine (Vol. 13, No. 9, May 17, 2007). For additional information, contact W.I.N. editor Mike Finn (888-305-0606 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
MISSOURI'S BRIAN SMITH EARNED COACH OF YEAR HONOR FOR BUILDING PROGRAM FROM SCRATCH
By Bryan Van Kley, W.I.N. Publisher
Prior to coach Brian Smith coming to the University of Missouri in 1998, the school had only one winning season in the previous 10 years.
Nine hard, long years later, Smith and the Tigers walked off the NCAA championship platform with the third-place hardware, the first trophy won by a Missouri team in 42 years. For his role in the program's amazing turnaround, Smith has been chosen as W.I.N. Magazine's Dan Gable Coach of the Year.
There were several top candidates for this year's award including Iowa State's Cael Sanderson, Minnesota's J Robinson and Northwestern's Tim Cysewski.
Sanderson led a young Cyclone team with six freshmen in the line-up to a salty second-place finish at the Nationals. Most people outside of the ISU program did not think they would be that good that fast. The Cyclones won the Midlands, went undefeated in Big 12 dual meets, downing both Missouri and Oklahoma State, and won the Big 12 conference tournament. Sanderson certainly had an incredible rookie season as a coach, getting consistent effort out of the team all year long, including the unseasoned newcomers.
Robinson led the Gophers to their first national title since 2001. They finished the year 20-1, winning the National Duals and the Big 10 Conference. But despite winning the NCAA crown, Robinson's high horse-powered Gophers had a disappointing national tournament finishing 30 points below their seeds.
Cysewski's squad also finished the year strong. The Wildcats tied a school record with their fourth-place finish. They had four All-Americans and one national champ in Jake Herbert (184). But their 13-8 record in duals showed their youth in some weights.
The reason Smith was chosen over the rest was in recognition of how far he's taken the program. After two losing seasons and an 11-11 effort in his first three tries at Missouri, Smith's teams have gone 88-25 since then and have climbed the NCAA tournament ladder; finishing 17th, 16th, 13th, 11th, 15th and 3rd.
Iowa Public Television commentator and former Iowa State head coach Jim Gibbons said publicly mid-way through the season that if Missouri brought home a trophy at this year's NCAA tournament, it would be one of the most significant coaching accomplishments in the last 50 years.
"In a year when there's been several superlative coaching jobs, his achievement stands out for bringing Missouri from where they were not too long ago to walking away with a trophy," said Gibbons, whose ISU team won the title in 1987. "You have to put a wide angle lens on this. It was unthinkable 20 years ago."
Gable said Smith's coaching accomplishments are even more significant since he didn't have elite college credentials.
"From where he's come to where he's at now, he's done a remarkable job. He didn't have the name recognition that some people have which allow them to get to the top faster. Because of that, it's even harder," Gable said.
The humble Smith was very pleased when notified of the award.
"I'm honored. It's obviously named after the greatest coach of all time," Smith said. "It takes a lot of great people to get an award like this. It's the culmination of a lot of work."
He stressed there are many ingredients in place at Missouri now that have allowed the program to rise, including top-notch assistants like Bart Horton and Pat McNamara, a very supportive administration and a family (his wife Denise and three children) that supports him 100 percent.
"The administration has been great. When I got here, they were just talking about surviving. Now, all they're saying is that we can win it all," Smith said. The Tigers' top two athletic administrators chartered a plane and flew to Detroit for the final two days of the NCAAs.
Smith has done what is necessary with the boosters, past alums, local community and the state to make sure everyone is behind the program.
The Tigers drew nearly 3,000 fans on average per home meet this year, ranking them fifth in the country. Smith said he spoke at Rotary Club meetings in Columbia, when he first got to town, and maybe four people had even been to a meet. Now, half the room attends duals when he surveys the crowd to see what kind of progress the program is making.
This momentum stems from Smith's passion for the sport and isn't something that has just happened. He and his staff have been methodical over the last nine years about building up to this point. But to understand Smith's workmanlike attitude that he puts into coaching, you have to know where he's came from.
Getting a late start in wrestling as a kid, Smith's family moved to Florida just before he started high school because doctors told their family the warmer climate may help the repeated bouts he was having with bronchitis and pneumonia. After high school, Smith wrestled for Michigan State and then returned to Florida after he graduated from college to follow in his father Brian's footsteps as a coach.
Smith had two successful years at Western High School, placing second and fourth, before Jack Spates talked him into coming up to Cornell University in New York as a restricted-earnings assistant, making $12,000 annually.
"Everybody was telling me I was crazy," Smith said, except for one person. "The last person I talked to was my Dad and he encouraged me to take the chance."
After a year under Spates, Smith was named the head assistant when Rob Koll came to Cornell in 1993. He spent four years in that position before taking the head job at Syracuse University. Again, the doubters told him that decision could be the end of his coaching career as Syracuse was in a four-year "lame-duck" period of trying to raise enough funds to save the program.
Smith spent a year there before being hired at Missouri, which at the time was certainly not a top coaching job, despite being in the Big 12 Conference.
"People are afraid to take chances. You have to be ready to move. A lot of coaches think you have to wait for the best thing to happen. Missouri wasn't a top job but I knew it had potential," Smith said.
But Smith, who had applied for nine other head coaching positions, was up to the challenge despite a letter that was sent in during his first week saying that he should be fired. And, he found out later, there had been an option tabled among administrators that some athletic programs could be dropped.
Smith said their strategy from the beginning was to outwork the other teams, and to be better on the mat. Since they didn't have the blue-chip talent of some of their Big 12 Conference counterparts, they needed to make up ground in other areas. Smith identified that as mat wrestling and pursuing pins.
"When I first got to Missouri, we didn't have as much talent as the rest of the Big 12. So, we just really worked on top because most of the good kids (at other schools) are good on their feet."
And that attitude and those bonus points ended up being the difference for Missouri this year. The Tigers racked up a whopping 22. 5 bonus points in Detroit. The points ended up making up for top-seeded Max Askren being eliminated on the first day. Smith pointed to his team's ability to step up after that setback as a great example of what has allowed them to get into college's elite circle.
A good example of that was at the National Duals finals against Minnesota. Nick Marable, a back-up freshman 157-pounder was inserted into the line-up at 165 pounds, while captains Matt Pell (165) and Ben Askren (174) both moved up a weight to give the team a better chance to win. It almost worked, but the Tigers weren't able to get the bonus points they needed against the Gophers down the stretch.
Smith's approach towards coaching is pretty simple. He loves what he's doing and he believes in the underlying purpose of what a coach really does.
"I wake up every day and think, 'I get to coach at the University of Missouri and coach kids who want to win a national title,'" Smith said. "Coaching is an every day thing, worrying about the kid and how they're doing academically or personally. I just love to coach."
When Smith looks back on the 2006-2007 season where his Tigers were ranked No. 1 for a stretch during the season but failed to win the conference title at home and finished third at the NCAAs, he said he'll have no regrets.
"I'm proud of these kids because they gave everything they had. You have to keep moving forward. I don't look back and see what could have been," Smith said. "We fell short, but a lot of people didn't think we could get to where we are at."
It's wrestling's gain when a great coach like Smith is able to turn around a program like Missouri the right way. Smith's Tigers proved continual hard work pays off. They also proved they're likely to be a force in Division I wrestling for quite some time.
(Bryan Van Kley is the publisher of W.I.N. Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at Bryan@WIN-magazine.com.)
"ORDINARY" CODY GARDNER IS EXTRAORDINARY JUNIOR HODGE WINNER
By Rob Sherrill, W.I.N. High School Editor
It's not easy becoming a success in wrestling's rugged upper-weight world, especially when you're a freshman 189-pounder trying to make the best of the 215-pound weight class.
But for the last four years in Virginia's Group AA, the 215-pound class has been owned by one and only one wrestler: Christiansburg High's Cody Gardner.
Despite giving away 25 pounds, this 189-pounder did all right for himself, posting a 38-4 record and recording 21 pins while winning the title.
The rest has been history.
Gardner followed up that freshman season with marks of 51-2 as a sophomore, 48-0 as a junior and 46-0 this season. That gives him a career record of 183-6, including 132 pins and a 120-match winning streak over nearly three seasons to close his career.
Gardner has owned the 215-pound weight class in a few other places, too. He is part of an elite group of wrestlers that have won the prestigious Beast of the East Tournament three times, and has won the Walsh Ironman twice and the Junior National freestyle title a year ago.
Now Gardner owns something else: W.I.N. Magazine's most prestigious age-group award, the Junior Dan Hodge Trophy for 2007. The award is presented jointly by W.I.N. and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).
Gardner, who also excels in the classroom with a 3.1 GPA, edged an elite field of contenders for this year's award. Also in the running were:
- five-time Minnesota champion Zach Sanders (119) of Wabasha-Kellogg High;
- four-time Illinois champions Albert White (152) of Chicago St. Rita High and Mike Benefiel (171) of Lombard Montini High;
- three-time Ohio champion Colt Sponseller (160) of Millersburg West Holmes High, the Outstanding Wrestler in the NHSCA National High School Seniors Wrestling Championships;
- Idaho standouts Kirk Smith (171) of Boise Centennial High and Clayton Foster (189) of Kamiah High, who achieved the double distinction of Junior National freestyle and National High School Seniors crowns.
Who would have gotten Gardner's vote? He cast his ballot for Benefiel, his teammate on the United States team in the Dapper Dan Wrestling Classic.
"I really enjoy watching him wrestle," said Gardner, who shared the top step of the awards stand with Benefiel twice at the Ironman. "He's a really good technician and a lot of fun to watch."
In Christiansburg, wrestling is king, and Gardner knows that as the star of the best team in the school, wrestling is why he's recognized everywhere in town. But he'd much rather be known as just another kid.
He likes to take his girlfriend to the movies. He enjoys waiting tables at Amelio's, an Italian restaurant in town.
"I meet new people every day," he said.
Gardner started wrestling when he was a third-grader in Burlington, N.J. His father, Keith, moved him to Christiansburg before he started high school. There he would blossom under coaches Kevin Dresser and Daryl Weber.
"I don't think I could have learned from two better people," Gardner said. "I don't think it's necessarily the moves or anything. It's the intangibles. They can motivate people better than anybody I've seen.'
Dresser and Weber built the Christiansburg program, with Dresser, the Blue Demons' head coach for Gardner's first three seasons, succeeding current Iowa coach Tom Brands as head coach at nearby Virginia Tech.
Thanks in part to Gardner's commitment to the Hokies last November, Dresser's first full year of recruiting at Blacksburg has been an unqualified success (see column on page 15). Weber has continued the success as Christiansburg's head coach this year.
If any wrestler has pushed Gardner, it's Blairstown (N.J.) Blair Academy ace Jared Platt, who has wrestled Gardner to three one-point final matches over the past year - in the Junior Nationals, the Ironman and the Beast of the East - though Gardner took all three encounters. That's why he relished the challenge of the Dapper Dan, where big-time Pennsylvania opponent Kellen Harris of Sharon High, a two-time state champion, awaited.
"I love the challenge of wrestling somebody I haven't wrestled before," Gardner said. "I don't really hesitate that much. I open up a little more. It's easier to do what I can do than if I'm wrestling somebody I've had close matches with before."
Gardner struck first with a takedown, added a three-point near fall for a 5-0 lead and was in command the rest of the way. The bonus point generated by his 13-5 major decision over Harris, a Marshall University football recruit, turned out to be the margin of victory.
"I just went out there and tried to score first," Gardner said. "Usually in a match if I can score first, it opens things up a lot more, lets me wrestle a lot more how I want to wrestle.
"I got the first takedown pretty quick - I got an ankle pick on him. After that, I started trying to turn him and I got three back points and I had a 5-0 lead. I felt pretty good after that. I didn't really know how the whole match would turn out, but I tried to do the best I could. Once I saw that I was close to the major I tried to work for it, to get the extra points."
The major came in front of a partisan crowd in Pittsburgh that rooted for the home team to break the United States' streak. Thanks in large part to Gardner's performance, that didn't happen, and he was voted the Outstanding Wrestler of the U.S. squad.
"It's a charity match, and it was a lot of fun," Gardner said. "(The crowd) wanted (Pennsylvania) to win, but they're good sports."
Like everybody else who lives in the hills of southwest Virginia, Gardner will remember exactly where he was when the tragic shootings took place at Virginia Tech, April 16. Thirty-three people, including the gunman, died in the attacks. Like many area schools, Christiansburg High was placed on lock-down when news of the shootings was released.
"I was in class," Gardner said. "Then they announced the lock-down of the school. Nobody really knew what was happening. As soon as we found out, we were just praying that everybody was all right. Blacksburg and Christiansburg are such safe places, not much crime. It was a real shock."
Gardner's immediate thoughts were with the Hokie wrestling team and everybody else on the campus.
"I was thinking about everybody at the school," he said.
Just like any ordinary kid.
AFTER WINNING SECOND SCHALLES AWARD, ASKREN ALMOST READY TO TEACH PINNING STYLE
By Mike Finn, W.I.N. Editor
Ben Askren doesn't have a title for it, nor does he know when it will be published but the Missouri senior is currently working on a book on the mental aspect of wrestling.
And considering the two-time Dan Hodge Trophy winner also was named the winner of the Schalles Award - named after former Clarion national champion Wade Schalles - as college wrestler's most dominant pinner for a second consecutive year, there aren't many people more authoritative than the native of Hartland, Wisc.
In his four years at Missouri, Askren became the school's first NCAA champion when he appeared in four consecutive NCAA finals and won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007 while dominating his opponents like few have seen since Schalles dominated college wrestling in the 1970s when the two-time NCAA champion (1972-73) won 153 of 159 matches and pinned 109 foes.
During Askren's career, he compiled a 153-8 record with 91 pins. That included a 42-0 mark in 2006-07 when the Tiger senior flattened 29 opponents. His 69 percent pinning percentage was even higher than the 55 percent of pins he collected (25 of 45) as a junior.
While Askren continues to train in his future quest of winning a World and Olympic gold medal, he will continue to live in Columbia, Mo., where he will serve as an assistant coach to Brian Smith. How will he now coach wrestlers to copy his mindset.
"I think it's more of an attitude than a style of wrestling," said Askren. "Some people think college wrestling is so hard and that every match has to be close. They are stuck in the mindset because that's what everyone has told them. They realize that it is doable and once you set your mind on doing something, it's easy."
Askren said he found that out after receiving at least 95 surveys from former great college wrestlers.
"We are researching all the NCAA champions and we sent them questionnaires. One of the responses I got back from (former Minnesota champ and current Iowa State assistant coach) Tim Hartung said that once he learned college wrestling wasn't about mediocrity and that matches did not have to be close, he opened up and started dominating people. It was a mindset for him and that's what you have to tell people. Don't come into the wrestling room expecting to be average. You might as well try to be the best."
So who does Askren - who credits his former Arrowhead High School coach John Mesenbrink for his "go for the kill" attitude - believe could be the next Ben Askren?
"There are already a bunch of guys out there who are doing it, but maybe not to the extent that I did," said Askren. "As far as moving forward, I could see (Iowa's) Brent Metcalf taking on the Brands' style, where he's not absolutely going for the pin but keeps moving forward all the time attacking."
While Askren is excited about coaching some day, he also wants to move forward with his own wrestling career. He was reminded about what was important during this year's NCAA tournament in Auburn Hills, Mich., where he pinned three opponents before beating Pittsburgh's Keith Gavin in the final and also had time to help his teammates.
"I had my nice shoes on for the All-American round when I was coaching some of my guys and I told (Oklahoma State head coach) John Smith that I was looking forward to coaching," Askren recalled. "He told me I better not look too forward to coaching too soon or you are not going to be as successful as a competitor.
"I am going to take that advice to heart. He's right. If I want to be as good a wrestler as I want to be, I can't spend all my time coaching. I have to do what's important to me, at least for the first couple years."
Until then, the secret of Askren's success will have to be watched instead of read.
HUNTER MEYS OF NEW YORK LIVES UP TO SCHALLES LEGACY AS JUNIOR WINNER
By Mike Finn, W.I.N. Editor
If there was ever a wrestler who was born to earn a national pinning award, it had to be Hunter Meys.
"Hunter was named for head hunter, which was the award that was given at my high school when I was wrestling," said John Meys, the father of the winner of this year's Junior Schalles Award, who most recently pinned his way through the New York state tournament as a junior at Shenendehowa High School.
There is also a pinning legacy that exists between Schalles and the ninth winner of the trophy that is presented annually to the nation's best high school pinner.
"I liked that name, Hunter, and the way Wade Schalles wrestled," recalled John, who like his father of the same first name won a National Prep championship in the late 1970s for Salesianum in Delaware.
"Wade was the most exciting wrestler to watch, ever. His pinning legacy was something I always looked up to. Hunter knew who Wade Schalles was when Hunter was five or six because I spoke frequently about him and I used a lot of the stuff I learned from him."
John Meys is familiar with Schalles, because he wrestled for Wade at Clemson in 1979 and 1980.
"Every day, he would blow your mind with technique," said John. "Basic rules were broken all the time in order to get a better move. Now we see his stuff is becoming more mainstream on the high level. Back when he was doing it, few knew what it was. Wade's stuff was 30-40 years ahead of its time."
John now sees that in his son, who recently completed his state championship season with a 47-0 record, which included 44 pins at 171 pounds. Since making his high school team as a 96-pound seventh grader, Hunter has compiled a 207-10 record with an amazing 174 pins.
"Hunter likes going for the head," said John. "He likes going for the pin and I like that. I always admired the pinners, who had the extra fear factor. Hunter is very aggressive and simple; nothing flashy. He's always going for a leg or something and then going right after the pin. He is no nonsense."
"Hunter has a freakish work ethic and deceiving power," said his Journeymen Club coach Frank Popolizio. "People will look at him and see a little boy's face, but I've seen real strong men fall like lawn chairs when they work out with him."
Hunter said it's been tough developing this reputation, but finds ways of adding to his pin collection.
"You have to adapt your moves to who you are wrestling," he said. "One move is not going to work on every person. You have find what move works well on who you are wrestling now."
Hunter Meys, who gained 20 pounds between his sophomore and junior seasons has grown from a young man who was considered a "pathetic" pee wee wrestler.
"He was good at pinning someone and then doing a somersault and getting pinned," laughed John. "That was his best move."
John said he saw a change in his son when he entered third or fourth grade and soon started practicing the sport any place they could find a wrestling mat.
Hunter, meanwhile, credits his coaches, including Shenendehowa High School coach Robert Weeks for developing his style.
"He creates a tough wrestling atmosphere in the room," said Hunter. "Our whole team team has a good work ethic so it's easy to work hard."
Hunter said he's not quite sure when he became a pinner.
"I try to go out there and get the pin," said the younger Meys. "Everything I'm working for is to make my position better and allow me to get the pin quicker and as soon as possible in the match. That's how I was brought up."
Hunter did not even think too much about pinning four straight opponents at this year's New York state tournament.
"That wasn't really my focus," he added. "It was to wrestle well and win. That's the way I would have liked it to go though."
Hunter's bigger goal was winning a state tournament, which appeared to dim after finishing third in the state as a 112-pound eighth grader. In the two years that followed he finished fifth as a freshman and failed to make the state tournament as a sophomore when he lost to Michael Chaires, a two-time champ who will attend Virginia next fall, in a sectional final.
"I'd look at him a month later and he you could see that he was ready to cry," recalled John. "It was a very difficult time in our life. We focused on Fargo (for the Cadet Nationals), where he fell short, but he never gave up on the sport, which can beat you up."
"I kept working at it. We have a lot of coaches who also told me what I had to do to get better and I usually follow that," said Hunter.
The younger Meys knows that college recruiters will be knocking on his door soon, but he wants to keep his focus on high school.
"I've been looking at a lot of good schools and it's going to be a tough decision," said Hunter.