By Betsy Veysman
Matt Dernlan was focused on his Clarion wrestlers at the 2012 NCAA tournament in St. Louis, but like many other coaches and fans, he couldn’t help but notice the performance of Binghamton’s Donnie Vinson.
The 149-pounder dropped his initial bout to Nick Lester of Oklahoma before rattling off seven straight victories to take third place.
“I think it’s the toughest tournament in the world, especially if you lose your first match,” Dernlan said. “It’s not the achievement of third place that was so impressive. It was the resilience and resolve he showed to come back and keep fighting and winning. With that type of character and his talent, he’s got everything it takes to be a national champion.”
Dernlan now has an opportunity to be a part of Vinson’s run at a title in his new position as head coach at Binghamton. In fact, when talking to Dernlan, the phrase “national champion” comes up quite a bit.
The Ohio native has some experience with reaching the pinnacle of the college wrestling world. As the Director of Operations, he was part of Penn State’s NCAA title team in 2011. He witnessed the key ingredients that brought that crown to State College and believes he sees many of the same pieces in place at Binghamton.
“When the job first opened up, it wasn’t something I pursued because there were a lot of good things going on at Clarion,” he said of the institution he coached for nine months. “But Binghamton reached out to me. The more I talked to them, the more I saw all the elements necessary to build a national championship program.”
Those elements, according to Dernlan, go beyond the athletes and coaches.
“Coming from Penn State, I have an understanding of everything that has to come together to get to the top,” he said. “You need to have committed support from everyone – from the President, the athletic department, the alumni and the community. You need to have support systems in place for the student-athletes. I wouldn’t have left a top 20 program with the history and tradition of Clarion if I didn’t think all of that support was here. When I spoke to the President about his vision for the university and to the Athletic Director about his vision and plans for the next five years, I got really excited. Conversations with the alumni made me even more excited. It became an easy decision.”
Another reason the decision was “easy” is the current state of the Bearcat program. When now-North Carolina State head coach Pat Popolizio took the reins six years ago, Binghamton was a winless team. Fast forward to 2011-12, when the Bearcats earned a top 20 dual meet ranking in addition to an 14th place finish at the NCAAs fueled by five qualifiers and a pair of All-Americans (Vinson and freshman heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski). Dernlan spoke with admiration about the foundation Popolizio developed.
“A lot of credit needs to go to Pat,” Dernlan said. “He did so much to elevate the program to national prominence. He created the right kind of culture. We want to take advantage of that and build on all the momentum.”
To do that, Dernlan will look for a holdover from Popolizio’s staff, Jasen Borshoff, to play a key role.
“I’ve been spending time with Jasen, picking his brain and getting to know him,” he said. “I am very impressed with his intelligence and passion. He’s everything I think college coaching should be about. Retaining Jasen was a priority. He is committed and driven towards the same goals as I am.”
Dernlan said he also would like to utilize the expertise of volunteer assistant Andy Seras, whom he has not spoken to yet in detail in his few days on the job.
“Andy’s resume and track record show that he brings a lot to the table,” he said. “If he wants to continue on, that would be attractive. He has roots in New York.”
New York roots are another topic Dernlan talks about with enthusiasm. He has watched several Empire State grapplers succeed in the postseason over the past several years and believes that homestate wrestlers should form the backbone of the squad.
“It is very appealing to be in New York, which is one of the best scholastic states in the country,” he said. “That’s been proven by performance at the NCAAs. If we can get the talent in this state on our team, I don’t anticipate going outside the borders that much. I believe we can win and win big with New York kids.”
Dernlan knows it won’t always be easy getting those top Empire State grapplers on campus. There aren’t double digit in-state programs competing for talent like in Pennsylvania, but the coach knows that programs such as Cornell, Hofstra and Buffalo are competitors on the recruiting trail — and on the mat.
“Rob Anspach has done a great job at Hofstra,” he said. “They have great tradition and I am sure we will push each other to be great and continue to elevate the stature of CAA wrestling. And I know there’s a team up the road in Ithaca that’s been doing special things. You want to compete against teams like Cornell. Rob Koll is one of the best coaches in the nation and he’s created the standard. We’ve got a bullseye on his team. Having several elite teams in this state can only be a great thing. But our goal is to become the face of New York wrestling. If we can do that, we’ll be contending for national titles because that’s what Cornell is doing now.”
Trying to take that step next year will be a fairly experienced Bearcat team. While longtime standouts Justin Lister and Matt Kaylor have graduated, and heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski is likely to transfer, Binghamton could return the remainder of its starters, including NCAA qualifiers Vinson, Nate Scheidel and Cody Reed.
“I think we’ve got great experience and a collection of individuals that have gone deep into March and know what that environment is like,” Dernlan said. “Everyone is proud of what Binghamton accomplished last year but now we’re aspiring to go beyond. There’s a lot that goes into that; a lot of intangibles you can’t control at the national tournament. But my expectation is that with the talent we have returning and the incoming guys, we can improve upon last year if we prepare the right way.”
An integral component of that, according to Dernlan, is optimizing the level of competition throughout the campaign.
“We need to elevate our schedule and compete against the best,” he said. “The CAA tournament and Nationals are the two target weeks of the season. We won’t be doing our program or any of our wrestlers favors by padding records heading into the conference tournament. We need to test ourselves early, often and consistently so that when March rolls around, we’re ready for those big moments. We know what the intensity and the fight of March are all about and we need to be prepared.”
Part of that preparation, the coach said, is encouraging an aggressive style of wrestling.
“We want to go out to dominate, put up points and break our opponents,” he said. “If you do that, you build a reputation and it spreads. It creates a tangible element at the national tournament. People step on the mat with you and they already know what they’re in for. They know you won’t back down and you’ll be in their face for seven minutes. That’s what makes you succeed against the best.”
Succeeding against the best is something Dernlan values. When asked about his most memorable match, he almost immediately brings up one of his toughest high school battles in the Buckeye State against fellow state champion John Marchette.
“Competing against him is something I remember to this day because he pushed my limits in every capacity,” he said. “We laugh about it at this point and appreciate and respect each other for pushing each other to new levels. Fortunately, I was the winner, but we were both better for the battle and it helped us both later on.”
Dernlan sees that competitive fire in the Binghamton room. He has spent his first few days meeting the team and laying out the gameplan for the summer and next season. He joked about his endless to-do list, which includes things like figuring out summer camps, talking to this year’s incoming class, selling a house and hiring another assistant coach (Frank Beasley accompanied Popolizio to the ACC), all while shuttling back and forth to Pennsylvania. But he’s enjoying every minute of it and his optimism is obvious.
“[Popolizio] won and he did it the right way,” he said. “He wanted to win with character kids who were a positive reflection on the program. That’s fundamental for me; doing things in a way that the university and the community will be proud of. With what we have in place here, I think Binghamton should be a top 10 team every year. But that won’t be enough for me. I’m driven to win a national title. If we attract the right kids with all we have to offer, I believe we can get there.”