Cheektowaga to the Cyclones: National Champion Renaldo Rodriguez-Spencer Picks Iowa State

Renaldo Rodriguez-Spencer took his official recruiting visit to Iowa State last weekend not knowing what to expect.

He left Ames as a Cyclone, after giving head coach Kevin Jackson a verbal commitment before returning home.

“I just liked everything about it,” he said. “I liked the workout they had and the football game was fun.  I felt really comfortable.  The coaching staff is great and I really like the campus – it wasn’t too big where it was overwhelming.  I thought it was perfect for me.”

The Cheektowaga senior, who projects as a 141 pounder at the next level, said he was also considering Buffalo, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina State and Ohio State.

Rodriguez-Spencer with future coaches Kevin Jackson and Troy Nickerson, courtesy of Todd Rodriguez-Spencer

It’s easy to see why Rodriguez-Spencer, currently ranked #37 in the Class of 2014 by Intermat and #89 by Flowrestling, was highly sought after by schools around the country.

He has medaled at tough tournaments numerous times over the years, including at the Pan American Games in 2010 and at Fargo (third at 132 pounds in Greco Roman) in 2012.

He followed up that All-America performance last summer with a 48-0 junior campaign for Cheektowaga, winning 42 matches by bonus points.  After a runner up finish as a sophomore at the New York state tournament, Rodriguez-Spencer returned to the Saturday night finals this February at the Times Union Center and topped Tristan Rifanburg of Norwich 2-1 at 132 pounds to earn his first state crown.

“I was very excited about the way last year went,” he said. “I wrestled the way I wanted to most of the time. I wanted to go through the season without getting taken down. [He said he was taken down once]. I was really happy to win the title.”

It wasn’t long before he climbed to the top of the podium again.  A few weeks after the high school season concluded, Rodriguez-Spencer nabbed a national championship at the NHSCA tournament in Virginia Beach.  He cruised through his first five matches at 138 pounds before facing Maryland’s Alfred Bannister, a two-time title winner at the event.  Trailing by a point late in the third, Rodriguez-Spencer executed the “flying squirrel” to pick up the winning takedown just before time expired.

“He was pretty low and I couldn’t get to a shot,” Rodriguez-Spencer said a day after that event. “The obvious option was to go over the top. Once I decided to do it, I knew I had to hit it hard and do it strong.”

He stayed strong while transitioning into the international styles, taking fifth at the FILA Juniors in Las Vegas before representing Team New York well at the Junior Duals in Oklahoma.  In the Sooner State, he went 15-1 combined in Freestyle and Greco, and was ready to make some noise at the national championships at Fargo.

It started out well in Greco for Rodriguez-Spencer in North Dakota, as he captured victories in his first five bouts.  However, in his next contest, he suffered an injury.

“I hurt my elbow in the last few seconds of the match,” he said. “I couldn’t move my arm, so I had to drop out of the tournament. It was really hard to do.  I worked so hard getting prepared and went out there to do some big things. To get hurt like that was really tough.”

So, his pursuit of Fargo gold was put on hold.  But Rodriguez-Spencer has his sights set on more trophies as a senior before heading to Iowa State.  He said he will likely begin the 2013-14 campaign at 145 pounds and move to 138 after Christmas.

“I want to win another state title, go undefeated and not get taken down at all this time,” he said.

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Renaldo Rodriguez-Spencer wanted to thank his mom, dad and family as well as his coaches and everyone else who has supported him.

Troy Nickerson Ready to Start Next Chapter as Cyclones Assistant Coach

By Betsy Veysman

It sounded like Troy Nickerson was talking about Cornell, the way he has for years. A beautiful campus. Great opportunities for outdoor activities like hunting.  An unmistakable family atmosphere on the wrestling team.

But on Saturday when being interviewed, he wasn’t describing Ithaca, which he has called home since 2005.  He was discussing the place he’ll be starting the next chapter of his career – Ames, Iowa as an assistant coach at Iowa State University.

“I’ve been in New York almost my entire life,” he said. “It will definitely be different living in Iowa, but there are a lot of similarities.  I think the opportunity I have out there is a great one.”

The opportunity was one of several available to the four-time NCAA All-American.  At different points since graduating from Cornell he considered medical school and a Masters degree, but ultimately decided he couldn’t imagine his life without wrestling, even after a recent challenging time in the sport.

Nickerson spent much of the recent past working on freestyle in preparation for the 2012 Olympic Trials. However, his quest for London didn’t go as planned, as he didn’t qualify for the Trials.

“It was a life experience for me,” he said.  “I’m happy that I made the commitment to train.  I think I wouldn’t have been satisfied if I didn’t try.  I had a lot of setbacks.  Health was a factor stopping me from reaching my goals. But I developed great relationships and traveled the world. I learned a lot about myself.  I realized how much passion I still have for wrestling and that I still wanted it to be the focus for me.  I loved coaching before and decided it was what I wanted in the future.”

Nickerson has previous coaching experience at the Finger Lakes Wrestling Club (FLWC) in Ithaca, where he mentored grapplers ranging from the youth to senior levels after completing his Big Red degree.  He was the head coach of the club’s college team in 2010-11.

“The thing I enjoyed most about working at FLWC was helping those guys achieve their goals,” he said. “I got to see their improvement on a daily basis and that’s what excited me.  I was able to develop relationships with them and impact their lives – like so many of my coaches have done for me.”

The only wrestler to capture five New York high school state titles said he feels lucky to have been around great leaders who he hopes to emulate in his new position.

“I really admire what Rob Koll and all of the Cornell coaches have done,” he said. “I think the thing that has impressed me most is the atmosphere of family and community that has been cultivated.  Whether you’re a top guy or a backup who is unlikely to ever start, the coaches take a value in each person’s life, in wrestling and outside of wrestling.  That’s extremely important.  It has helped Cornell develop a rich tradition in a short time. I look forward to developing similar relationships at Iowa State.”

Nickerson has that chance with a team that is looking to get back to the top of the college wrestling world after 20th and 35th place finishes at the past two NCAA tournaments.

“There’s a lot of young talent in the room right now,” he said.  “When [head coach] Kevin [Jackson] came in, they were really in a rebuilding phase and that continued this past season. But there are some great guys there and some talented recruits coming in.  I’ve seen the ability of NCAA qualifers like Ryak Finch and Luke Goettl as well as incoming guys like John Meeks, Destin McCauley and Dakota Bauer, to name just a few. I look forward to working with those guys and making a big impact.”

The 2009 NCAA champion at 125 pounds certainly can relate to the young talent.  He joined the Big Red lineup as a true freshman and showed he belonged right away.  The Chenango Forks native won his first 18 bouts, earned the first of his three EIWA crowns and reached the NCAA finals in his first season out of high school.

In his 97-8 career with the Big Red, Nickerson had many memorable victories.  One of them was a match against a Cyclone – Andrew Long – in early 2010.

It was a high profile tilt for a number of reasons.  It was the opening bout of a dual between two top teams – #2 Iowa State and #6 Cornell.  It was also being televised live and was part of a fundraising event for the Adam Frey Foundation.  Long had been impressive and was ranked fifth in the nation.  Nickerson had been struggling with injuries.

It didn’t matter.  The Cornellian put on a show for the crowd, albeit a short one.  He took Long down soon after the opening whistle and put him on his back.  While the Cyclone fought hard to keep the match going, Nickerson earned the first period pin and a victory many Big Red fans still discuss.  But Nickerson isn’t one of them.

“That match was in the past,” he said. “I think what you can take away from that win and others is that when you step on the mat, it doesn’t matter who you’re facing or what the environment is like. That’s the kind of mindset I hope to instill.”

“I saw a lot in the past year, traveling internationally and being put way out of my comfort zone,” he continued. “We had to perform in environments where we didn’t have the food, equipment and other amenities we’re used to in the United States.  It’s all about being able to adapt.  That’s what the guys at Iowa State need to do, just go work hard; don’t worry about who the opponent is. I want to have guys that just compete and believe they’ll win.”

While he talked about not worrying about who the opponent is, Nickerson admitted that he’s happy Cornell is not on the Cyclone schedule this season after three consecutive years of dual meets between the squads.

“I loved my time at Cornell and consider Ithaca home,” he said. “I learned from the best coaches in Division I.  I will always be a Big Red fan. I am grateful for the opportunities Cornell has given me.  When it comes time to coach against the Big Red at NCAAs or some other tournament down the line, I’m sure it will feel different than against other teams.  But I’m excited to be at such a storied program and I’ll do everything I can to bring victory to the Cyclones.”