CLEVELAND -- The day before the NCAA DII Wrestling Championships began at Cleveland Public Hall, California Baptist’s Bryden Lazaro locked his knee in practice.
Two nights later, Baptist heavyweight Jacob Mitchell chased after a national title.The Lancers’ first dance at Division II wrestling’s biggest show was a roller-coaster ride for head coach Lennie Zalesky, himself a three-time All-American who helped Iowa win four consecutive DI championships in the 1980s. But what a ride it has been. Three of the Lancers’ five wrestlers placed among the top five in their weight classes.
Mitchell, a 2016 Olympic Games hopeful who was a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center before choosing to go to Cal Baptist, was to face top-ranked and unbeaten Ziad Haddad of Kutztown in the final championship match Saturday night.
But it was Lazaro’s fifth-place finish at 125 pounds that truly moved Zalesky and many other coaches. Lazaro, a graduate student, entered the tournament as the No. 1-ranked wrestler in Division II. Ten minutes before practice ended Thursday, he locked his knee. Disappointed, he chose to keep going through the competition, beginning with a first-round victory against Brandon Oshiro of Maryville.
“Ninety percent of the kids would be done. You’ve got to give the kid [Lazaro] a lot of character for that,” Zalesky said. “Never-give-up type of attitude. Keep going even though the chips are down.”
Lazaro ended up wrestling six times on his injured knee, concluding his run with a victory against Marco Tamayo of Lindenwood in Saturday’s fifth-place match. During the two days of the tournament, coaches of other teams approached Zalesky to talk about Lazaro’s determination.
“Unbelievable that he’s wrestling with that,” Zalesky said he was told.
That is precisely the kind of character that Zalesky said he is trying to build in the Cal Baptist program. Baptist began its program five years ago and won the NCWA team title last year while waiting out its move to NCAA DII. Zalesky joined the program prior to the 2011-12 season after the UC Davis Div. I program he was coach of was shut down by university officials as a financial cutback.
“You try to build a team that’s a successful team that everybody kind of feels proud to be around,” said Zalesky, a three-time Big Ten Conference champ and twice a runner-up at the NCAA Div. I Wrestling Championships in his days at Iowa. “You always try to build character within the kids. There’s a lot of life lessons going through one season, let alone five.”
“I like the system he runs for practices. We run a lot of technique,” said Bradford Gerl, who won fifth place Saturday at 141 pounds.
Zalesky began his coaching career at Iowa, serving now retired Hall of Fame coach Dan Gable as an assistant for four years. His brother, Jim, is head coach at Oregon State and also the person who helped pave the way for Mitchell to show up at Baptist’s campus in Riverside.
“He’s really smart, he’s really good,” Mitchell said of Lennie Zalesky. “He’s got a lot of good technique. He’s a real good coach. He teaches me stuff. That’s one of the reasons I came to Cal Baptist.”
Mitchell is a product of Peninsula Wrestling Club in Portland, Ore., where Roy Pittman is head coach. He advanced through the ranks of youth competitions and is now hopeful of making the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team in Greco-Roman wrestling. He placed fifth at an international tournament in Finland this past November as a member of a USA Wrestling squad.
“I was convinced nothing but goodness could come out of going to Cal Baptist,” Mitchell said. “I get a free education, he‘s a good coach and I get to win a national championship.”
“He’s an incredibly talented wrestler,” Zalesky said. “One of the most talented heavyweights I’ve ever seen, athletically, flexibility, strength, quickness. Very good upper body. He’s just a very talented kid.”
It was Zalesky’s established history with Iowa both as a wrestler and a coach that sold Mitchell once Jim Zalesky contacted his brother about Mitchell.
And it helped that Cal Baptist assistant coach Arsen Aleksanyan, a two-time world team member for USA Wrestling, is a Greco-Roman specialist.
“I get the best of both wrestling worlds,” Mitchell said.