Interview with 2003 NCAA Champ LeRoy Gardner, Part 2

We pick up where we left off yesterday with Part 2 of the interview with 2003 NCAA Division III heavyweight champ LeRoy Gardner. Today, he talks about how he ended up at Wartburg, what it meant to wrestle there, and 2007 Wartburg heavyweight champ Blake Gillis.  Click for Part 1 Even though you grew up near Minneapolis and Augsburg College, you attended rival Wartburg in Iowa. How did you make your college decision, what pushed Wartburg to the top, and what other schools did you consider?

LeRoy Gardner: This will provide some background about how I ended up there:

I was very raw coming out of HS; I had only wrestled since my sophomore year. I was varsity two of those three years at a HS that really didn’t have any history of success. I went after it head first, though, with all I had, and I wrestled all year round. Football was my off season. I did FS and Greco with the Storm Club in MN. We went to Jr. Duals, and Fargo.

There was no shortage of achievement in that club. Everyone from Cadet National Champs to the U of MN guys at Espoirs. So I saw the bar and I also saw what it took to get there from those around me. My first year wrestling I went down to Dan Gable’s Training Camp in Iowa. It opened my eyes to the level of training needed to really be the best. It was also Gable’s last year as a head coach. After that season he stepped down. Deep down, I was a Gable Hawk’s fan, since he was like the Army slogan. You would be all you could be under him. Of course, as a 15 year old first year wrestler it was all grandiose and bigger than life. I held season tickets through HS to the Gophers and was a fan, but the level or performance Gable got out of guys was incredible to me.

I went 0-2 at my state tourney my senior year (pinned twice, ouch!) I got recruited more for football than wrestling. I think any wrestling mail I got was perfunctory. I was on some list somewhere along with 800,000 other HS wrestlers. I didn’t get called by anyone. I had some football programs, mostly D2 in the Midwest, that talked to me, but I made up my mind pretty early in the recruiting process before school ended that I hadn’t done all that I wanted in wrestling and really didn’t want to play football anymore. I just wanted to give wrestling all I could and see what happened.

I had good coaches around me. My HS coach, Al Price, also coached Eric Akin in HS in Kansas. Joel Sharratt was our state developmental coach for the MN Storm. Also, Dan Chandler, who was our Greco coach for MN. Among many others, Randy Baker, Joe Russell, and many more, it was definitely a multi-headed approach for the Storm teams. They all pushed me, and Joel let me shadow him and train with him during that 2000 cycle a little bit. So again I got to see what it took to be at the highest level.

My losses at state really motivated me to keep going. I knew I had better in me. After state my next goal was Jr. Nationals in Fargo. I think I was so sick of wrestling big fat guys that I cut down to 220 the two weekends following our state tourney. I weighed in at state if I can remember correctly about 240 or 245 but as HS heavyweight 220 wasn’t out of the question. I cut the weight down and wrestled and it was like someone freed me, it was so nice to grab someone and feel them move when I wanted them to and where, down at that weight. I cut for roughly six or seven tourneys including Jr. Duals that year. I loved being able to actually wrestle and move without being concerned about a fat guy headlock. I had some success at the weight. At Jr. Duals I lost by tech fall to Tommy Rowlands, and to this day he and Allen are the FASTEST heavyweights I have ever seen. I literally saw Rowlands in front of me and then saw him on my leg but hadn’t seen any movement in between. I got rolled up pretty well by him but beat all my other opponents at Jr. Duals in FS. It was fairly popular to wrestle both styles like all the stud guys did at Juniors so I had tentatively planned to do so. In talking with Joel, I asked him his opinion and he told me, “Well, I can’t make the decision for you, but two things can help you decide; One, I won’t have my number one 220lber be here half the time, two if you want to win a national title (FS) I can help you get there but you have be here every step of the way.” That made my mind up, I was only going freestyle. I trained with him almost everyday I could.

Out at Fargo, I don’t remember exactly but I won the first one or two and then I wrestled a guy named Matt Hasbrook from Indiana. He had a two on one and key locked it out and tossed me back over his head, but he took my hand and elbow out away from my body, which feels like your shoulder is going to explode out of the front (Editor’s Note: This sounds a lot like what happened to Cary Kolat’s opponent in the PA state finals his senior year). So I screamed the whole way over, and they stopped the match upon me hitting the mat, he gets 3 (feet to back) and 1 for the stoppage. Had I not screamed I probably would have been touch-falled upon hitting the mat. I get it massaged during the injury time and go back to the match knowing not to give him a 2 on 1 anymore. I am down and he locks up a bow and arrow and rolls me like 3 times or something so by the time I get back up I am down 9-0 with 10 points being the tech fall then. I proceed to take him down like 9 times but couldn’t turn him, and end up losing that match 11-10 or 11-9…I cannot recall. The next day of the tourney I tech-falled or pinned all my guys until the pools. The first match of my pool I drew, Tommy Rowlands again, but I had wrestled him once so I thought I could do some different things this time. We wrestled even the first stanza I think and then he shoots in on double and as I am going out of bounds I toss him over my head for exposure points myself, they scored it 3-2 for him, which was correct. So here I am thinking I have shot at taking this match. I still to this day can’t know if he baited me or not, and we have talked about it, but I swear I saw a Hi-C open up while we were handfighting so I took it to right leg and proceeded to get touch falled to my back with a pancake. So much for the Hi-C I swore was there. I just think I didn’t set it up but it was there. Anyway he continued to tech or pin his way through everyone, I think I was the only one who scored on him the whole tourney, but he still proved he was the man. Anyway I ended up finishing 5th out there. Although not happy with it, I felt somewhat validated about my commitment after the state tourney and all the work I did in between. To go 0-2 at state and then end up placing at Junior Nationals felt ok.

My senior year of HS, Wartburg had won NCAA Championship, and I knew I wanted to go to a good program where everyone wanted it as bad as I did. This narrowed my field for me regionally. It was Minnesota, Iowa, Augsburg, and Wartburg. I also looked briefly at UNI. My parents both worked at Minnesota, and working with the Storm I knew the program fairly well. I knew the coaches; can’t say that anyone outside of Joe Russell knew me, but I knew them. I knew if I went to place like that I wouldn’t get the coaching attention I needed (I thought). I would simply be practice fodder for some guy that was recruited for 4 years before I got a shot. That isn’t what I wanted at all. I knew I needed to compete early and often to get better. Iowa was also fading because Gable left and again at that level I wasn’t going to get the time of day. My HS coach knew Coach Miller at Wartburg from when he was a graduate assistant. for them at UNI, so he pointed them out to me and called Miller for me, saying he had this young, raw heavyweight with ok potential. I visited, and it is about 3.5 hours south of where I live. I drove down by myself in my mom’s car. I arrived about 10 at night. Met some guys, hung out and then in the morning regrouped with Miller after getting the tour and etc. He sat me down and said, “You know, I don’t care what you did in HS, I want you to come in here and compete for a National Championship after your freshman year.” That was all I needed to hear. I was sold, because I felt the same way. Now looking back I think he may have told any HWT recruit that because he was graduating an AA after the following season, but for me, I could commit to that goal. I drove back after my visit, and I loved that it was different, not like the Twin Cities. I am kind of a zig when everyone zags guy, so to me I liked that it was against what people thought I “should” do. My folks supported it, my HS coach did, and so it was sealed. I was going to be a Knight. That was after my visit to Augsburg.

I visited Augsburg sometime in the spring before I had really done anything except BBQ the state tourney. I contacted them about visiting, I met with Coach Swenson, he gave me the school’s history and basically said he would love to have me join the team, I could play football and wrestle and contact him anytime. I took the tour and then left, not sold that it was the place for me. Plus Ben Bauer (Winner of the following two NCAA titles) was a returning for two more seasons. That also was not what I wanted.

The bottom line was to go where I felt I would be able to reach my goals as an athlete and I also would be more than a body in the room. I felt Coach Miller meant that he wanted me to compete after my freshman year, because he did, no matter what I did in HS.

I don’t blame anyone for not recruiting me; no one had reason to think I would do anything above average at any level based on current results. I still joke with Coach Miller that I wasn’t on his recruiting list. He will tell the team that set all the records in 2003 (my senior year) he thought was the worst class on paper he’d had. I always point out that that same team minus maybe two guys was the same team that finished 6th in 2001, our worst finish in 10 years at the time. We all hated that had happened, but I guess it worked out in the end. It still doesn’t make that 2001 season feel any better.

d3: While recruiting good wrestlers is obviously important in building a good team, what else did the coaching staff at Wartburg do to keep the team consistently contending for a national championship?

LG: I think the one thing that they all did was get everyone to buy in to the goal, as team, to buy in to the fact that we could beat anyone if we all just performed as we were capable. Of course, we trained hard, but I think the difference at the highest levels becomes the belief and expectation that the training provides. It is hard to concede and give up on yourself when you’re tired or behind when you have trained so hard for every moment in a match. Coaches Miller, Malecek, Keller, Mitchell, and Walker all consistently gave you the chance to believe that we were the best, and that was by challenging us to perform at that level. The intensity level in the room was very high, and if you let up or backed down, you were selling not only yourself short but the guy you were working with, and we all took that very personally. So, you either fought to win or you got run over and ground down in practice. As a group, they grew that belief well.

As an individual Coach Miller is a very good motivator, it almost cliché, but he knows what pushes each guys button, and he pushes it when needed. I don’t mean in a bad way; he knows what makes his guys tick. Whether I need a pat on the back or a kick in the tail he knew it, and he was unflappable. He would wrestle with guys daily. Sometimes it was the 125s sometime it was the 149s, but he would battle. That was cool to see. He never stopped competing. That type of presence was very motivating to me.

d3: After you graduated from Wartburg, Blake Gillis stepped in and became a 4x finalist at heavyweight. What were you able to pass on to him while coaching at Wartburg, and how does your wrestling style compare to his?

LG: Blake is a great kid. He came in with all this potential, and he would say he didn’t meet it, but I think he always put himself in a position to be successful and he did meet it. He was right there. It may seem weird but I can’t claim much for Blake. He is like Sinatra, and he does EVERYTHING his own way. I knew even when he came on his visit he had all the tools for a great heavyweight. He was athletic, strong, big, and he moved well. But what really set Blake apart was his attitude. He believed he was to be a national champ since day 0. He came in with that expectation. It was almost hard not to smile inside at his gumption coming in. He thought he should be able to beat me from day one, and he would be really pissed when things didn’t go how he planned during practice or otherwise. He is just such a passionate competitor. He hates, despises losing, even in the practice room.

I worked a lot with the mental aspects because he had different tools physically than I did. I was more explosive and compact, where he is rangy and fluid. He really excelled on top. I only got better in that position by my Jr. and Sr. years. I tried to give him different options that just his low single; we worked some upper body setups because guys would try to slow him down. We worked snatch singles and front head lock stuff because he is so much taller and longer than other guys. I think he is more gamey where he loves the crowd and spotlight, where I really just loved the fight. I could be in a room with no one else but my opponent and still it would be the same. You could really see Blake shine when the pressure was up. Despite his losses in the finals, he was a gamer. I was more physical I think, especially later on in my career I got much more confident beating guys up. Blake would rather take you down and pin you than anything else or tech fall you. I equally loved feeling guys break mentally during the match. Like I said above, Blake was really dangerous on the mat in referee’s position. By the time he was a junior, I hated going down on the bottom. I didn’t give up turns, but he definitely would wear me out and actually make me dig to get out and escape. I didn’t have too many times where I needed to turn it on again, but that was one position where if I didn’t he would beat you down there. He had a grip like a gorilla, and he was so long so it made seem that much harder to get out.

Plus, he never panicked on the mat. Most HWT’s will bail if you expose their backs to the mat or get them nearly reversed, but he really was at ease in the crab ride or otherwise. I joked with Miller, after Blake’s freshman year, and I said, “Coach we should do an all time Wartburg team now because this is the only chance I’ll ever have to make because by the time Blake is done he will have left the biggest mark.” He will still tell you it hurts him that he didn’t win all four of those titles more than anything else. He was glad to win but it burns him that he didn’t win the others.

Come back tomorrow for the final part of this outstanding interview.