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Senior Donnie Vinson saw his arm raised 40 times during the 2011-12 season. Vinson was the CAA Wrestler of the Year and took third place in the NCAA Championship.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Wrestling preview: Vinson leads Bearcats into 2012-13 season
November 8, 2012Tweet
After an emotional off-season of goodbyes and change, the Binghamton wrestling program opens the 2012-13 season with one comforting constant: Donnie Vinson suiting up at 149 pounds.
On the heels of Binghamton’s record-setting 2011-12 campaign, the program said goodbye to its head coach, lead assistant, two of the most decorated wrestlers in program history and the team’s elite freshman heavyweight.
Enter first-year head coach Matt Dernlan, who took over in May and brought a wealth of high-level experience and a championship pedigree from Penn State.
Dernlan’s recruiting efforts paved the way for the Nittany Lions to win back-to-back NCAA titles in 2011 and 2012 and he was named the nation’s “Rookie Coach of the Year” by Amateur Wrestling News last season after guiding Clarion to an 18th-place NCAA finish.
Roster hit hard by graduation
The graduation of 2010 All-American Justin Lister (105 career wins) and three-time NCAA qualifier Matt Kaylor (112 career wins) and the departure of All-American heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski has left a few gaping holes and unsettled spots in Dernlan’s starting lineup.
Dernlan will turn to senior All-American Vinson and returning NCAA qualifiers Nate Schiedel and Cody Reed to anchor a starting lineup that will have new names attached to as many as seven weight classes.
“Replacing guys like Lister and Kaylor is difficult,” Dernlan said. “They have been stalwarts for four years … NCAA qualifiers and leaders. They leave a huge void in our lineup. The challenge is for guys to step up and not just fill the roles but step in their shoes and duplicate what Lister and Kaylor accomplished in their careers.”
Dernlan forges new direction
Dernlan stabilized the program in the spring and was immediately impressed with the caliber and character of the student-athletes.
“I inherited a group of good-character kids who are committed to doing all the right things,” he said. “That made part of the transition very easy. Our guys embraced the new philosophy and style of training and while change is never easy, everything has been positive.”
One change Dernlan instituted was a sharper focus on technique, as opposed to a more fitness-centered approach.
“When I evaluated the team in the summer, we had two character qualities from top to bottom that you can’t teach – heart and toughness. But we were lacking in technique. If we can add good technique to those other qualities then we have the potential to do good things.”
Here is a capsule look at each weight class.
Senior Patrick Hunter moves down a weight class to take over this spot. Hunter won 19 matches at 133 last year, narrowly missing out on an NCAA berth. He went 3-1 at the CAA Championship with his lone loss being an overtime decision. Dernlan is high on Hunter and his potential to end his collegiate career with national honors.
“Patrick is one of our best technical guys,” he said. “He is a student of the sport and definitely has the ability to determine his place at NCAAs. He has all the skills to be in the conversation for All-America honors.”
Junior transfer David White, who competed two years at Army, is a viable backup. White is a former Pennsylvania state champion down the highway at Athens Area High. He won 33 matches in two years as a Cadet and placed sixth at the 2012 EIWA Championship.
Redshirt freshman Mike Sardo is still rounding into form after an injury but is showing a lot of potential.
With Hunter’s move down a weight, this class was up for grabs and junior Dan Riggi has claimed it with hard work. Riggi, who redshirted the 2011-12 season, won nine matches as a sophomore and has impressed Dernlan with his determination.
“Dan takes no shortcuts,” Dernlan said. “He is committed to the lifestyle it takes to be successful and has all the traits that coaches love.”
Freshman Dylan Cohen, a state runnerup and two-time state qualifier for Williamsville East High, will get a chance to earn a starting spot. He won 150 scholastic matches as a five-year starter.
Senior Derek Steeley, the team’s 125-pound starter the last two seasons, bumps up for his final collegiate campaign. Dernlan hopes the former Oklahoma state scholastic champion can harness his ability this winter.
Sophomore Brian St. James, a former transfer from Indiana, is a “character kid” whose contributions are widespread.
Sophomore Joe Bonaldi returns to his starting role and should benefit from being a freshman starter in 2011-12. Bonaldi won 16 matches in his true freshman season (9-9 duals).
”Joe has all the tangible things and is one of the most technically sound guys on the team,” Dernlan said. “He went through a learning curve as a freshman and will reap the benefits this year. He still has some adjustments to make but should be in the conversation for All-America honors before long.”
Redshirt freshman Derak Heyman will push Bonaldi for the starting spot. Heyman, a two-time state champion and four-time scholastic All-American at nearby Tioga High, battled through an injury-riddled redshirt season and has the talent to step into a key role.
Vinson is one of the premier wrestlers in the program’s 42-year history and he will have a chance to complete his stellar collegiate career with more NCAA hardware in March. His junior season featured dozens of honors and milestones – beginning with a third-place NCAA finish and CAA Wrestler of the Year accolades. Vinson drew national attention by rattling off seven consecutive wins at the NCAA Championship to earn the highest Division I honor in program history. Dernlan believes Vinson has all the tools to be a national champion in 2013.
“Donnie is in great position to leave his mark on this program on a number of levels,” he said. “He has as much ability as anyone I’ve been around at the collegiate level and has the potential to be a two-time All-American and our first national champion. These are exciting things but we can’t let those distract Donnie from performing at his best.”
Dernlan believes Vinson’s breakthrough at the 2012 NCAA Championship – after dropping his opening match – will be invaluable to his 2013 approach.
“Donnie kicked down the door last year,” Dernlan said. “Once you’ve stood on the podium, you have the roadmap. He knows how to do it and when he combines that experience and mental maturity with his athletic abilities … that’s a dangerous combination.”
Vinson went 40-5 in 2011-12, including a commanding 18-1 dual match record. He is 54-8 in career duals and is on pace to become the program’s all-time wins leader. He is ranked anywhere from second to fourth in the national preseason polls, but the weight class is strong across the country with six returning All-Americans from 2012 and a few title contenders returning from red-shirt seasons. Dernlan believes his guy matches up with anyone.
“Donnie is one of the few guys who is dominant in all three positions – on his feet, on top and on bottom,” Dernlan said. “Very few wrestlers have that package – what you would call a five-tool player in baseball. We aren’t trying to change anything he does … only fine tune. The difference maker will be mastering the details and finer techniques.”
This is another weight up for grabs although redshirt sophomore Joe Chamish has the inside edge. Chamish served as a backup to Lister and Kaylor a year ago and Dernlan likes his athletic ability and potential, despite an injury that may slow his early-season production.
Redshirt freshman Brian Conrad, whom Dernlan affectionately labels a “mat rat,” is also in the mix. Conrad is a former sectional champion with a superb attitude and work ethic.
This weight used to be the end of Binghamton’s middleweight gauntlet of Vinson-Lister-Kaylor but now it’s another question mark heading into the 2012-13 season.
“We’re looking for someone to step up and be ‘the guy,’” Dernlan said of the 165 vacancy. “There isn’t a clear separating point right now. The guys at this weight are still forming their identities and when given the opportunity, they need to take it and prove something.”
The trio of candidates is redshirt freshmen Vincent Grella and Adam Lepkowski, along with true freshman Jack McKeever.
Dernlan has two strong options here with redshirt sophomores Caleb Wallace and John Paris battling for the starting spot.
When Paris went down with an injury early last November, Wallace stepped in and produced a solid 11-win campaign that ended with a third-place finish at the CAA Championship.
Paris was the CAA Rookie of the Year in 2010-11 after notching 19 wins and reaching the finals of the conference championship.
“Caleb has made tremendous strides in the offseason and has been one of the standouts in the practice room this preseason,” Dernlan said. “But John has a great work ethic and will battle him for the spot. Both guys will have opportunities during the first semester to take control. Each is blessed with a lot of ability.”
After a breakout sophomore season, junior Cody Reed drops down a weight class to anchor this slot. Up at 197, Reed earned an NCAA at-large berth last winter and picked up two wins in St. Louis, including an upset of the No. 4 seed in the national draw. He wound up with 25 wins and posted a 10-7 dual record. Dernlan believes the move down a weight, as well as the national tournament experience, will benefit Reed this season.
“Cody is tough and rugged and those attributes take you a long way,” Dernlan said. “He now knows what it takes to get to the NCAAs and to win matches there. Cody needs to get on the hunt for points early in matches and take it to his opponents. He’s a perfect-sized 184 and while he will have to pay attention to his weight management, he has the discipline to do it so I’m not worried. He has the talent and can go far this year.”
Reed is positioned at No. 18 in the Intermat Preseason Rankings.
Senior Nate Schiedel completes the switch with Reed and now claims the upper weight for his final collegiate season. A three-time NCAA qualifier who owns a sparkling 91-28 career record, Schiedel made his own breakthrough at the 2012 NCAA Championship with a pair of wins and Dernlan strongly believes he is poised for a special season.
“Nate is a beast,” he said. “He has the potential to be in the hunt for national honors. He will see the benefits of the weight change right out of the gate since all his focus can now be on getting better as opposed to constantly worrying about the next weigh-in. Nate is one of those rare bigger guys who is dominant on top. He’s getting better every day and is enjoying the sport a lot more. I’m really excited for his final season – he is positioned for a tremendous one.”
Schiedel begins the season 13th in the Intermat Preseason Rankings.
With the departure of All-American Gwiazdowski, the weight belongs to sophomore Tyler Deuel, who packed on the pounds in the off-season to make the jump. Deuel is a two-time sectional champion who went 44-1 in his final scholastic season. He competed in seven matches last season in an understudy role to Reed at 197.
“Tyler paid the price this summer to grow into the role and now has a legitimate heavyweight body. He needs to challenge himself to be consistent every day in the practice room and he can forge his identity and have success.”
Dernlan amps up schedule for March payoff
The schedule, which features three top-10 opponents and several other showcase events, is an upgrade that Dernlan believes is critical to the team’s long-term goals.
“We wanted to prepare our guys for the NCAAs the best way possible,” he said. “We want them to see the best guys in the country consistently throughout the season and so we added Lehigh and several strong teams at the Northeast Duals. We also gained an invitation to the Midlands Championship. These upgrades will significantly elevate our competitive schedule.”
Because of the added schedule challenges and his team’s new lineup, Dernlan isn’t overly concerned with the dual wins and losses. But he remains firm in his confidence that a handful of Bearcats will be on the mats in Des Moines on March 21-23 at the NCAA Championship and each will have a legitimate shot to be standing on the podium at the end.
Pursuing a winning tradition
Continuing the program’s rapid growth on the national scene is paramount to Dernlan, who helped form a winning tradition at Penn State.
“What the program accomplished last year … that should be the standard,” he said of Binghamton’s 14th-place NCAA showing. “It shouldn’t be unexpected or heralded as a watershed moment … it has to be the expectation that we aren’t just a nationally-competitive team in a given year but one of the premier programs in the country. But until we achieve a consistent result over several years at the NCAAs, you can’t say we’re there yet. This was one of the reasons I was excited to come here … we have the potential to do that.”