Monday, March 22, 2010

Five years to glory

Gordy Flam used to be one of those faceless “friends” you make on the internet. Two years ago his nephew qualified for the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships. Gordy traveled south from Minnesota to support Matt and Gordy and I finally met. Matt, a St John’s wrestler, qualified again this year and Gordy and I ran into each other at the opening session of “DIII’s”. When Coe College’s Chris LeClere took the mat, Gordy said, “It’s fun actually seeing these guys from Four Days to Glory wrestle.”

In 2005 author Mark Kreidler followed high school seniors Dan LeClere and Jay Borschel in their quests to become four-time Iowa high school state wrestling champions. The resulting work, Four Days to Glory, is one of my favorite books about wrestling (read the New York Times review here). While Dan and Jay are the central focus, one beauty of the book is how well you get to know the families, friends and teammates of the two protagonists. Gordy told me of taking a trip with his daughter to a show choir contest held at Linn-Mar High School (where Borschel wrestled). During one of the breaks he had to sneak off to the gym to see what types of wrestling memorabilia might be on the walls. He was pleased to see that Jay was appropriately recognized.

Dan LeClere’s college career didn’t follow the path he first planned. Like Jay and a third Linn County, Iowa resident, Joe Slaton, he first went to Blacksburg, Virginia to wrestle for Iowa legend and former Hawkeye assistant coach, Tom Brands, at Virginia Tech. When Jim Zalesky was fired as Hawkeye head coach, and Brands hired to replace him, Dan (along with Borschel and Slaton) followed Tom “home”. They were joined by Brent Metcalf and TH Leet, who also elected to stay with coach Brands. The decision had its repercussions. The Virginia Tech athletic director would not release the five from their scholarships and all lost a year of intercollegiate eligibility.

Dan’s first official season in a black and gold singlet showed great promise. He was 22-11, won a Midlands championship and qualified for the NCAA tournament. The following season the combination of Alex Tsirtsis returning from a red-shirt year and a series of nagging injuries limited his competition to just eight matches. This season started with Dan in a three-way battle with Slaton and Montell Marion for the starting spot at 141 pounds. When the dust cleared, Marion was “the man” and he was an NCAA finalist Saturday night. Life for college wrestlers is rarely about a future as a competitor or coach and Dan, a multiple Big Ten All-Academic selection, seems to be well prepared for whatever is thrown his way in the next 60+ years.

Dan’s teammate at North Linn High School, Tyler Burkle, was the first of the “supporting players” in Four Days to Glory to climb to the top of an NCAA championship podium. In 2008 he became the first wrestler to win a national title for Division III Coe College. The two younger LeClere’s, Nick and Chris now also wrestle at Coe, where Nick was an All-American this season.

Matt McDonough was a freshman at Linn-Mar when Kreidler was following Dan and Jay. Matt didn’t go unnoticed by the author, “…(Linn-Mar coach, Doug) Striecher has hopes for other wrestlers as well. One is Matt McDonough, the freshman who is becoming a better wrestler by the day.” That progress continued over Matt’s four years in high school and he went on the win three Iowa state championships. McDonough was heavily recruited and for a long time there was much speculation that, even though his dad, Mike, wrestled for Gable, Wisconsin and Northwestern were the front runners as his college choices. Matt has said in interviews since that it wasn’t until the morning of National Letter of Intent signing day that he decided to go to Iowa and wrestle for Tom Brands.

At 22-8, Matt had a reasonably successful redshirt season at 133 pounds. As last season ended he looked at Iowa’s senior-laden lineup and saw that his only opportunity to crack that lineup in 2009-2010 was to drop down to 125 pounds. By all reports he lost the pounds carefully and intelligently and making weight never seemed to be an issue. Iowa fans spent much of the off-season speculating about what level of success to expect from McDonough. Any skepticism that there might have been was erased early and Matt exploded onto the college wrestling scene. Many observers – including me – consider him to be the most exciting Hawkeye freshman since Lincoln McIlravy or Jeff McGinness. Kreidler’s quote from the book was prophetic as he seemed to be “a better wrestler by the day.” All of that hard work was rewarded Saturday night when Matt defeated Iowa State’s Andrew Long to win the NCAA championship at 125 pounds.

Jay Borschel started reading posts about himself on internet message boards while still in high school. The doubters have always motivated him. His mother, Carol, is quoted by Kreidler as saying, “They don’t know how much that stuff fires him up.” The internet doubt just never seemed to go away. Online poster credibility is a funny thing and I’m not sure how it is won or lost. As Jay and the other transfers prepared for their sophomore seasons, one frequent contributor to the “Iowa boards”, someone considered by many fellow forum followers to be an “insider” and an “expert”, pronounced that, “Jay Borschel will NEVER start for the Hawkeyes.”

His sophomore season he erased most- but not all – of the doubt when he finished third in the NCAA championships. Last year, as a junior, hampered by injuries and mid-season surgery, Jay failed to place at the national tournament and once again the critics and nay-sayers started typing and posting. Perhaps they are now forevermore silenced.

Saturday night Jay Borschel joined perhaps the most elite fraternity in wrestling in the state of Iowa. He, along with Dan Le Clere, was already a member of a pretty exclusive group – the nineteen four-time high school champions. Saturday Jay became just the fourth of those nineteen to ever win a Division I NCAA title. Congratulations, Jay. I hope you go online and bask in all of the well-deserved glory.


Julia said...

Great post, Jim! I also loved "Four Days to Glory" and you did a great job of summing up everything that happened to Dan and Jay since the end of the book. It's amazing that only 4 of the 19 4-timers have won Division I titles. It's an exclusive subset of a darned exclusive club.

I love reading "the boards" but I do cringe when people make such casually disparaging comments about individual wrestlers. Fortunately, judging from Jay's own blog, he could care less what anyone on the boards thinks about him. I hope every wrestler is able to maintain that perspective; I wish the board posters could, too.

Anonymous said...

Circumstances are the rulers of the weak, instrument of the wise..........................

Anonymous said...