A two-time All-American, Appalachian State’s Jon Jon Millner has already proven himself on the national stage. He’s won three conference titles, finished second at the 2022 U23 World Team Trials and been a key leader on a rising Appalachian State team. He’s made history for his school and his state, but Millner wants more.
This drive to end his career on top and elevate the Mountaineers as a group inspired the Greensboro, North Carolina native to return for a sixth season and rejoin a team of dedicated, hungry wrestlers committed to bringing more hardware back to Boone.
“I saw a lot of growth from last year to this year, which is always satisfying because you don’t always get to see those dividends pay off, but I did and that motivated me,” Millner told NCAA.com. “It really upped my motivation to come back for this next year because I saw how much growth I had, and I know I can improve more. I know I haven’t reached my full potential, and I know I have the coaches that can help me get there.”
Millner has been a dominant force throughout his career at App State, but he made it clear that his journey isn’t just about him. It’s about the entire App State lineup and the quest to keep the Mountaineers consistently in the Top 25. Between Millner’s leadership, the expertise of veteran head coach John Mark Bentley and a strong group of returning stars, App State will be a team to watch this fall.
Here’s more about the Mountaineers’ summer training, their goals for 2023 and the elite culture they’ve built over the last several seasons.
“App State is a wrestling school”
Nestled in the western mountains of North Carolina, Appalachian State is a hidden gem of the state. The campus hosts about 20,000 students and sponsors over a dozen Division I varsity sports, but, as Bentley is quick to note, Appalachian State is a wrestling school.
“Pretty much every time we wrestle at home we wrestle in a sold out Varsity Gym,” he said. “Wrestling is a really big deal on this campus.”
The support from the community has been well-earned, as App State has finished in the top two of the Southern Conference for the last eight years. Last season, the team ended the regular season with a 9-2 record with one of those wins coming in dramatic fashion against in-state foe Campbell. The Mountaineers then qualified five wrestlers for the national tournament and finished with one All-American in Millner after he took sixth at 149 pounds.
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Since the tournament though, App State has continued to train and compete, sending 18 wrestlers to the U23 World Team Trials and ending the tournament with two wrestlers — Millner and Caleb Smith — in the top five. Bentley said this drive to compete and improve is one of his favorite qualities about the lineup he has now, and he believes this is the strongest team he’s had in his 16 years with the program.
The U23 trip in particular, he said, showed him what his program is capable of and reminded him of the positive culture that this group has within themselves. His athletes chose to stay on campus this summer and train, and they chose to commit themselves to their craft during the off-season.
Much of the recent success of the Mountaineers, both on and off the mat, can be attributed to Millner’s positive influence and leadership, Bentley said, and his relationship with his top athlete has only improved in their five years together.
“I’ve coached a lot of great competitors, and I would put Jon Jon up at the top of that list in terms of competitiveness and finding a way when it may not look like there's a way,” Bentley said. “He’s very good at getting in uncomfortable positions and being able to push through them. He has a mental toughness that something is ingrained in him that not many people have.”
Millner will return to the lineup at 149 pounds this year, and the star athlete said he’ll need to continue to seek out those uncomfortable positions to compete with the best. He has a good track record of doing just that, but he’ll be rejoining a deep weight class with stacked competition, making his quest for the podium an exciting one to follow.
Millner and the Mountaineers chase gold
As a redshirt freshman at App State, Millner fought for a lineup spot, coming just short of a starting role in 2019. His record that first year might not have suggested that he would go on to be one of the best wrestlers in program history, but, quietly, with the support of his coaching staff and teammates, Millner developed alongside his teammates and the App State program itself. Millner wrestled to a 21-9 record his rookie season, but then made a jump in 2020, finishing the year at 31-4 before COVID canceled his first NCAA tournament. In 2021, as a redshirt junior, Millner surged ahead, winning his second Southern Conference title and taking eighth at NCAAs after a Blood Round win against Josh Finesilver. That win made Millner an All-American, but he wanted to prove himself again.
“The first time [I All-American’ed] was the COVID year, and some teams were out, so I didn’t want that type of disrespect nationally because we are in the Southern Conference and there isn’t a lot of respect in the conference,” Millner said. “So I kind of took that a little bit personally.”
NCAA RESULTS: Full brackets from the 2022 NCAA wrestling tournament
Flash forward to the 2021-2022 season. Millner started strong, majoring Finesilver at the Mountaineer Invitational in November before taking a loss to Arizona State’s Kyle Parco, a wrestler he would meet again at the NCAA tournament. Parco pinned Millner, but the App State star rebounded after that loss and went on to win 19 consecutive matches before taking his next loss of the year to Bryce Andonian of Virginia Tech at NCAAs. That loss dropped Millner into the consolation bracket and increased his stress, as he now needed to win multiple matches in a row on the backside to repeat as an All-American.
And that’s what he did.
He beat Mike Van Brill of Rutgers 5-1, then outscored Colin Realbuto of UNI 4-0, and, ultimately, in the Blood Round, topped Iowa’s Max Murin 8-1 with assertiveness. He was an All-American.
Millner didn’t have much time to celebrate though, as he now had to take on a familiar foe in Kyle Parco. This time, Millner notched the win by way of a 9-4 decision. He would go on to drop a 9-4 match to Andonian again and lose 5-4 to Sammy Sasso for sixth, but Millner left Detroit, much like he left Saint Louis in 2021, as an All-American for Appalachian State.
App State fans know Millner’s name, and they know what he’s capable of, but Bentley said he wants the wrestling community to pay attention to the growth of some of Millner’s teammates as well.
“We’ve got a lot of guys, that’s the thing. That’s what makes it fun,” Bently said. “[Millner] is surrounded by a lot of good guys too, it’s not like it’s him and everyone else, he’s got a lot of guys surrounding him that are striving for the same goals.”
Bentley and Millner both note that the Southern Conference sometimes flies under the radar in the national conversation. But with the return of Millner, his U23 placewinner teammate Caleb Smith and other national qualifiers such as Sean Carter in particular, App State has the talent to make noise locally and nationally, and this is a team that will likely be in the Top 25 conversation this year.