Stevens: Division III wrestling offers something others cannot

Updated: February 24, 2023

Editor’s Note: The following column appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of WIN Magazine. Check out WIN’s NCAA Preview issue, printed March 3, where Sandy Stevens provides a wrestler’s perspective on competing at the NCAA Division III level. The 2023 NCAA Div. III Nationals will take place March 10-11 in Roanoke, Va.

By Sandy Stevens

Assume that you’re a wrestling coach in NCAA Division III, the only division that prohibits awarding financial aid based on athletic ability; in other words, no scholarships.

And if the rare Division III athlete should happen to attract an NIL contract, it’s likely a minor benefit, maybe from a local eating spot.

Your challenge: recruiting a student-athlete to a school that no doubt costs more than $30,000 a year and presents high academic standards. How do you do it?

“We stress a variety of things,” said Tim Fader, in his eighth year as head coach at Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “Obviously, we look at results, but we really are looking for someone who really loves wrestling.”

Tim Fader

A two-time All-American and Academic All-American at Division III Augustana (Ill.), Fader noted that divisions in state championships throughout the country vary greatly according to the state.

“We have some here who were (high school) All-Americans, but we have a history of developing wrestlers who haven’t achieved a lot in high school -— maybe never placed in state, won a match in state or even qualified. 

“But if you’re willing to stay with the sport,” he emphasized, “we’re willing to pour into you the time to make you successful.”

With a current Blugolds team of wrestlers hailing from five states, literally coast-to-coast, Fader also touts the school’s overall campus and its location. “We have a wrestler from Washington who had never seen our campus (in person), but he got to see what it was like with a virtual tour. 

“It’s really hard to beat the quality of life in Eau Clare,” Fader added. “It’s a great city.

“You could have (an offer of) a little bit of a scholarship elsewhere, but that doesn’t guarantee having a good experience. I’ll tell you, your experience here is going to be quite a bit different.”     

Logan Meister joined the Ferrum College program as a coach in 2017 and was named the Panthers head coach in 2021, but he first became the most decorated wrestler in school history, including Div. III All-American and Scholar All-American status.

That experience greatly affects his recruiting approach.

Logan Meister

“I found a home in Ferrum the first year they started the wrestling program,” he said. “A bunch of friends went Division I, but wrestling was something I really struggled with in high school. It was a tough sport and I had some injuries. 

“But as I thought about it, I realized why I was doing it, and I re-found my love of the sport. I viewed Div. III as a place I could be successful, that I could be a valuable member of the team and make an impact as well.”

This year the Virginia school’s lineup includes wrestlers from nine states and Spain (originally a soccer player with no wrestling knowledge), young men who seek to become valuable members of the team as well.

  “I became the first from Ferrum to qualify for the Nationals, the first to become an All-American, and that had great appeal for me,” Meister said. “My goal as a coach is to find Ferrum’s first national champion. 

“I’m looking for someone who wants to be a dreamer.”

Matt Gentry is in his first year as recruiting director and first-ever full-time assistant coach at the University of Chicago, but he comes to those positions as an athlete and a coach in Division I.

He became Stanford University’s first national champion in 2004, and from 2005-2010, he served as an assistant coach for his alma mater before transitioning to a freestyle career that included placing fifth in the 2012 Olympics for Canada. 

“You really are a student first at the University of Chicago,” Gentry said, pointing out that practices are scheduled around wrestlers’ class times. “But wrestling is a very important part of your education, your development as a person,” he added. “It’s not either/or.”

The first question he asks recruits is, “What do you love about wrestling?” 

“I don’t want them to say ‘Winning,’ because winning is not enough,” Gentry stressed. “Wrestling is hard. You have to love to compete, getting better, pushing yourself.”

Matt Gentry

A Division I team might boast 20 wrestlers ranked nationally in the top 10, he said, “but that means 10 aren’t wrestling.” 

Most in Division III will have a challenging and fulfilling experience, a lot of opportunity to compete, Gentry said, pointing out that Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater wrestler Jarit Shinhoster finished second in December’s Midlands Championships.

“My job as a coach is to maximize your wrestling potential, and the vast majority of wrestlers get that in Division III,” Gentry said. “The sport of wrestling at the collegiate level is really underserved. There’s a lot of talent around.”

And about those talented wrestlers in Division III, Eau Claire coach Fader declared, “They’re absolutely doing it for the sport.”

Note: Check out the next issue of WIN for a view from Division III wrestlers’ perspectives on why they chose that level.

(Sandy Stevens is a long-time public address announcer of national and international events and was named to the National Hall of Fame in 1998.)