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|SCHULTZ FEATURE: Lehigh Valley Athletic Club making major freestyle impact|
By Gary Abbott USA Wrestling
Keith Gavin of the Lehigh Valley AC competes in the Dave Schultz Memorial International at 84 kg. Brooke Zumas photo
Lehigh University has long been a leader within college wrestling, producing great champions on the mat and putting fans and supporters in the seats at their events. This storied program has now branched out to make an impact on international freestyle wrestling.
In the last two seasons, a number of talented, young freestyle wrestlers have chosen to affiliate with the Lehigh Valley Athletic Club (LVAC) and follow their Olympic quest with this emerging club.
In April 2008, in the press conference when Pat Santoro took over as the head coach at Lehigh University, he was very clear about his goals for international wrestling at Lehigh.
"Lehigh Valley Athletic Club has a strong club. I want to get involved as much as I can with the Olympic movement. I want athletes to know that if they want to become World and Olympic champions that they can do it here," said Santoro on his first day on the job.
It may be happening much quicker than people expected.
"The club has been around for 10 years," said LVAC coach Jason Kutz, himself a top freestyler as an athlete. "What we are trying to do is develop the hotbed of the Lehigh Valley. We are trying to get everybody on the same page. That has taken some time on the youth and high school levels."
"The decision was to jump into the freestyle circuit can from a vision by Pat Santoro when he was an assistant coach at Lehigh. He is the head coach now, and it is becoming reality. The key players and donors are on board. They all have the same vision. They want to get a talented group of wrestlers on board and to take care of them," he said.
At this year's Dave Schultz Memorial International, the LVAC brought five talented competitors, all with different backgrounds but each considered top hopefuls. The LVAC team today includes Matt Valenti at 60 kg/132 lbs., Corey Jantzen at 66 kg/145.5 lbs., Keith Gavin at 84 kg/185 lbs., Pat Cummins at 96 kg/211.5 lbs. and Blake Gillis at 120 kg/264.5 lbs.
Valenti was a two-time NCAA champion at Penn and Gavin won his NCAA title at Pitt. Gillis was a Div. III national champion at Wartburg. Cummins was a NCAA runner-up at Penn State. Jantzen is currently a star at Harvard. They went to a variety of states in high school, most from the East Coast. What they share is a desire to win Olympic gold medals for the United States.
"It has been really good for me so far," said Valenti. "Jason Kutz has been a great coach and great to me. When the club started, I was basically the only guy. They believed in me and in my wrestling. That is the most important part."
Valenti soon was surrounded by others who made their mark in college and age-group wrestling, and had similar aspirations.
"They are trying to set high goals for us all. They are trying to find guys who are motivated, and are relatively local guys. We have had some training camps there and every now and then I will go out and work out at Lehigh. It works well," he said.
Valenti sees the regional rivalries of Eastern college wrestling coming together behind the club and the athletes.
"It is funny for me," said Valenti. "I coach at Penn, and Lehigh is one of our top rivals. But when I put on the LVAC singlet, I can feel the Lehigh support behind me."
Kutz has seen the positive impact that the club has had both within the Lehigh University program as well as within the region, which takes pride in its wrestling tradition.
"It has a positive affect for Lehigh. The athletes are there often for training camps. It brings high caliber athletes to Lehigh University and to the Lehigh Valley. It is a mutual benefit for everybody," said Kutz.
As the LVAC club sets high goals for their athletes, it also elevates the level of freestyle wrestling within the United States.
"It is great to see the Lehigh Valley emerge as one of the national and regional wrestling powers within our freestyle structure," said National Freestyle Coach Zeke Jones. "We want to encourage our regional sites to promote and develop our next generation of Olympic hopefuls."
"The strength of the East Coast warrants having several great regional training sites there. The rich history of freestyle wrestling in Pennsylvania makes it a perfect fit in the Lehigh area. They made their goal clear, to have national champions, National Team members and ultimately an Olympic champion from their club. They are certainly capable of doing that," said Jones.
In the morning session at the Dave Schultz Memorial, three members of the LVAC club won their quarterfinal matches to qualify for the semifinals: Jantzen, Gavin and Cummins. Jantzen's quarterfinal victory, over Russian Gamid Dzhailov by a 6-0, 0-3, 2-1 margin, was a great win for such a young competitor.
Gillis was defeated in the semifinals, but is competing back with a chance for the bronze medal. Valenti lost a second-round match to Tomosuhga Ishida of Japan, and was eliminated in the consolation rounds.
The commitment to the Lehigh Valley Athletic Club is longterm, but the coaches and athletes are seeking to win now, and win often.
"We can't have a numerical goal," said Kutz. "We are trying to give the guys every opportunity to win. If they need something, we want them to know we are there for them. We may not be looking to get a World Team member this year, but we certainly want to do that. Now, it's about the initial journey and Olympic quest. We are in our infancy. But we are all about the individuals."