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Appalachian State wrestlers are NCAA Mountain Climbers
Photo: 149-pound All-American Jon Millner was among a school-record seven wrestlers from Appalachian State who qualified for the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships. (App State photo)
By Tristan Warner
The Appalachian State wrestling program has an insatiable hunger for beating the odds.
Nestled in the rural Blue Ridge Mountain town of Boone, N.C., App State is a public university that enrolls approximately 20,000 students. A long-time member of the Southern Conference, or SoCon, the school made a conference switch to the Sun Belt in 2014, albeit the wrestling program still competes as an adjunct member of the SoCon.
When JohnMark Bentley took over as head coach at App State in 2008, above all else, his sights were set on transforming the culture of the program.
At the time, with a handful of All-Americans and the occasional Mountaineer surfacing in the brackets at the NCAA Division I Championships, App State wrestling was by no means obsolete, but also not viewed as a contender on a national level.
Fast forward to 2021 and Bentley’s Mountaineers should be viewed as such.
With 52 NCAA qualifiers and four All-Americans to his credit, coupled with a dominating 44-5 conference dual-meet record in the past seven seasons, the program has proved its worth from an individual and team standpoint.
“One of the biggest initial challenges was building a roster full of kids who were willing to pay the price to be good,” Bentley reflected. “Creating a culture of kids who want to win and were proud to wear the black and gold is what we have always aimed for.”
Bentley, who acknowledged non-Power Five institutions such as App State face extra obstacles as opposed to their larger counterparts, has always operated with the mindset of doing more with less.
“That has been the blueprint from day one,” he said. “Our program prides itself on producing hard-working overachievers who love representing App State. It is not just about recruiting talent, but the emphasis is on developing the talent we have.”
Among the most decorated prep wrestlers in North Carolina’s history with a 144-0 career record and four state titles, Bentley was no stranger to the Tar Heel state when he took the reins.
After capping off a stellar collegiate career of his own that included 91 collegiate wins and 2001 ACC Wrestler of the Year honors at the University of North Carolina, Bentley used his prominence within the state to his advantage out on the recruiting trail.
“Early on, the recruiting focus was to hone in on the talent right here within the state of North Carolina,” he recalled. “But over the years, as we have become more successful, we have been able to branch out and recruit a lot of out-of-state talent.”
Among many other desirable attributes, Bentley believes the team culture, top-notch facilities and fan engagement have served as major catalysts to the growth of the program over the last decade.
“Obviously, a winning tradition has helped build our fan base tremendously, but there has also been a concentrated effort to engage the fans. Not many programs get to compete in a packed house with standing-room only for dual meets, so we take a lot of pride in that. Our facilities are also outstanding and are a major selling point for recruits.”
And, as far as recruiting is concerned, even though Bentley and his staff have branched out geographically, the ideal student-athletes for their program possess many of the same core characteristics.
This, Bentley reiterated, has been perhaps the single most important driving force behind his ability to consistently churn out nationally-prominent teams even without a full allotment of scholarships.
“We have had a lot of success recruiting blue-collar type kids who have extreme work ethics and love the sport of wrestling. Those are the types of kids with tremendous upside. We really stress the development piece here at App State. Every guy on our team really grows and improves dramatically over the span of their careers.”
At the start of the 2020-21 season, App State announced a massive addition to their coaching staff with the hiring of Ian Miller, a three-time NCAA All-American at Kent State.
After guiding four wrestlers to All-American status at Oregon State as an assistant coach with the Beavers, Miller’s presence was immediately felt in Boone.
The 2020-21 season was a record-breaking one for the Mountaineers, as a school-record seven wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Championships, five of whom were seeded within the top 20. Their prolific season was capped off by Jonathan Millner claiming All-American status with an eighth-place finish at 149 pounds.
Having Miller on staff, in Bentley’s opinion, has already paid dividends on and off the mat for the App State’s wrestling program in just one season.
“Ian is a tremendous coach and an outstanding human being. Our philosophies are so aligned. He has helped our student-athletes so much already on and off the mat.”
With all seven NCAA qualifiers returning for the 2021-22 campaign — Codi Russell (125), Sean Carter (133), Anthony Brito (141), Millner (149), Cody Bond (157), Will Formato (165) and Thomas Flitz (174) — the future of App State wrestling remains bright.
Despite the high hopes for the upcoming season, Bentley is intent on making sure his team stays hungry.
“Our team culture is stronger than it’s ever been,” Bentley said. “I try to keep our guys grounded, though.
“It is always exciting to have successful, experienced guys returning, but we must remember that last year’s results are not just going to carry over. We still have to go out and earn it. Nobody is going to give us anything.”
Appalachian State kicks off the season with three-straight tournament competitions at the Southeast Open, Mountaineer Invitational and Keystone Classic in November before hosting perennial powerhouse NC State on December 12 to begin its dual meet slate.