Simcoe welcomed chance to rebuild Grand Valley State’s NCAA program

Updated: December 30, 2023

Photo: Joey Simcoe had produced two NCAA Div. II champs and 15 All-Americans between 2010-22 at Tiffin University in Ohio before taking over the Grand Valley State program which returned this year after being dropped in 1993. (GVSU photo)

By Mike Finn

Joey Simcoe has always been a fan of NCAA Division II wrestling, which was one reason he spent nearly a decade coaching the team at Tiffin (Ohio) University.

But the 42-year-old coach from Johnstown, Ohio, wanted another challenge within the division and he found it 250 miles away in Allendale, Mich., where something historic was happening.

The school had just announced it was creating a varsity wrestling program for the first time since 1993 when the school — which is 15 miles west of Grand Rapids — dropped wrestling.

“I was in Tiffin for 11 years and we did some pretty amazing things,” said Simcoe, a 2004 graduate from Findlay in Ohio, where he was a three-time NCAA Div. II All-American, before eventually ending up at Tiffin where he produced two NCAA champs and 15 All-Americans.

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“When I got to college, I was a D-II guy and have been a D-II person my whole career. I just love what the NCAA Division II model stands for and Grand Valley has always been the pinnacle in the division. They were winning all those championships, including a Director’s Cup.

“I saw the opportunity to bring wrestling back to the storied program and western Michigan is a beautiful area with a rich wrestling culture. It seemed like if I was every going to make a move, this was the right time.”

Yes, Grand Valley State used to have a decent NCAA Division II wrestling program, considering the Lakers had competed in 15 national championship, finished as high as seventh in 1990 and produced three individual champions: Mike Abrams (167 pounds in 1979), Ron Essink (heavyweight in 1980) and Roger Singleton (118 in 1988).

But the school did drop the sport in 1993. Did that give Simcoe reservation about taking over this program?

“I’m not going to lie,” he confessed. “When I interviewed, I was skeptical. As much as anybody who loves this sport as much as us crazy people, I was wondering about if another shoe was going to fall.

Sophomore Josh Kenny had won 10 of his first 11 matches this season at 174 pounds to lead a Grand Valley State team that features 24 freshmen. (GVSU photo)

“But one of the first questions the president (Dr. Philomena Mantella) of the university asked me was, ‘What was my favorite takedown, a head-inside or head-outside single?”

Simcoe soon learned that Mantella had a son who had wrestled.

“So, we have a wresting mom who is the president of the university, and she knows the sport,” he laughed. “In our first dual, she was sitting in the front row yelling and coaching. It was amazing. That was a big sigh of relief for me.”

Simcoe pointed out that his first team consists mainly of freshmen (24), but he does feature a couple wrestlers who competed for Grand Valley State in the National Collegiate Wresting Association, which provided postseason competition for programs being run as club teams.

“Having the club here helped,” said Simcoe, adding that GVSU will continue to support a club team as well as a women’s varsity wrestling team. “We transitioned over 15 wrestlers from the club team. The guys are handling the transition to daily practices and multiple practices per day. It’s really nice to have those guys. For us, they are like upperclassmen and have been leaders for us.” 

Will competing as an NCAA team be much different for these wrestlers?

“They kind of had their own culture,” Simcoe said. “They already had a knowledge base of what was going to be expected. Their wrestling skill sets were already pretty decent. I would say their ability to just be a college student-athlete will help the younger kids.”

So, what are Simcoe’s goals for this team?

“We have several (goals),” he said. “No. 1 is the minimum of a 3.0 team grade-point average. No. 2 is to own the perception that people have of us on campus. No one here has seen wrestling in 30 years. We want to create what people think of us.”

Yes, there are a lot of questions about what this “first” Laker team of this century will be like. Simcoe is happy to be part of the answer to those questions.