Unsung Hero

WVU's 20th All-American in wrestling, Matt Lebe, sat down with BlueGoldNews.com to reflect on his successful college career and to look toward the future.

BGN: How did you get into wrestling?

Lebe: When I was six, I brought home a paper from school. I told my mom, "I want to go wrestle." I thought it was WWF [World Wrestling Federation]. "Look, I can do it," I said. "I'm six and 1/2." You had to be six to start. From then onwards, I wrestled all through elementary school through a Junior Olympic program. I first competed in junior high, but I still wrestled with a club team from 7th grade through high school. We practiced for the junior high team from 3:30-5:00, then had club practice from 5:30 to 7:00. There are a lot of Junior Olympic and club programs in western Pennsylvania. There is one here in Morgantown, too, the Mountaineer Wrestling Club. [Former WVU assistant coach] Zeke Jones used to run it, but [former WVU All-American wrestler] Shane Cunanan ran it this year. It's similar to the Pennsylvania program, for younger kids.

BGN: Why did you come to WVU?

Lebe: The big reason is that when I was seven, I started wrestling with [WVU's three-time national champion, now assistant wrestling coach] Greg Jones's dad's club team. I grew up in Jeanette, Pa., about 10 minutes from Greg. I had a good relationship with Greg and with Billy Smith (another former WVU wrestler and three-time NCAA qualifier). We were on same club team. When I came down here, I fell in love with the place, but being with those guys made it an easy decision.

BGN: Have you felt that you've been in Greg's shadow at WVU?

Lebe: Everything that he's had is obviously deserved. It was just awesome to be on his team and learn from him. I don't look at it as being in his shadow. I've been fortunate; it's been a blessing to be around him and learn from him and see the way to do a lot of things.

BGN: What has it been like for you to be coached by Greg? He was your teammate for many years, and now he's the assistant coach.

Lebe: I had a really good relationship with Zeke, so it was tough for me when he left, but if I'd want anyone to replace him , it would definitely be Greg. I can share with him, talk to him, we're friends. He could help me more than a regular coach could because he knows me, he understands me, he's been in my situation just last year. Greg's had an interesting transition. He's done a great job. He's been able to separate himself enough [to coach his former teammates] but at the same time, he's still a friend to us. Having Greg as the assistant coach has been a big comfort zone for me. If anyone knows my wrestling, Greg does. He's seen it since I was 7 years old. It's been comforting to have someone who knows me so well.

BGN: Let's talk about your academic career here at WVU. You did your student teaching earlier this year at University High School here in Morgantown, under the supervision of Ken Maisel, another former WVU wrestler. In fact, you're the latest in a long line of WVU wrestlers who have student taught with Ken, including Whitey Chlebove and Shane Cunanan . Is it a rule that all WVU wrestlers have to student teach with Ken?

Lebe: [Laughs]. It helps us out that we have a relationship. Ken's a great guy, a great teacher, and he's the wrestling coach at UHS. He's been involved. He brings the kids to our matches. I spoke at their banquet last year, in fact numerous guys from WVU have: Brandon Lauer, Greg Jones. Working with Ken makes the transition [from being a college student to being a school teacher] easy for us. I learned a lot from him. He's stern but the kids look up to him and they like him. He's a good mentor.

BGN: What did you major in at WVU? Education?

Lebe: I've already finished my bachelor's degree, which was in physical education and health. I'm now enrolled in a master's program in athletic coaching education. Sports have always been important to me, and I love being around kids. I have 4 little nephews and a niece, all age 4 and under. I go home to see them. Phys ed and health are a good way to work with kids. I'm doing the ACE master's degree to have a more well-rounded education. I will finish that in a year and a half. In the meantime, I'm applying to teach in Pennsylvania. I'd like to get back around my home area if possible. If I get a teaching job, I can finish my degree by doing classes on-line through WVU.

BGN: What does it mean to you to be WVU's 20th All American?

Lebe: Just to be in the company of those names, to see those pictures – it's pretty special to me. The longer I look back on it the more special it will be.

BGN: Tell me about the NCAA national tournament last year.

Lebe: Going into it, I was seeded 7th. The top 8 place, so I was in range to be an All-American, but I really believed I could be a national champion. Unfortunately, I lost in the first round, which made it tough. Talking with [WVU Head] Coach [Craig] Turnbull and Coach [Zeke] Jones last year, even after losing, they told me to shoot for the moon and if you fall short you can still catch a star. They reminded me that there was no reason I couldn't still be an All-American. I came back and won three matches in a row in the round of 12. To be an All-American, I wrestled the kid from Stanford who ended up being the national champ. I beat him in overtime.

BGN: What's the atmosphere like at nationals?

Lebe: There are people everywhere and they just love wrestling. It's neat to see. From Coach Turnbull and Greg Jones, with his experiences, I learned to get out of the arena when you're not wrestling. If you watch, you become a fan and stop thinking about what you need to do. That's tough when you want to watch your teammates wrestle, but it sucks a lot of energy out of you.

BGN: How do you feel going into this year's post-season?

Lebe: I had a good season. [Lebe's regular season record is 30-3.] Two of my losses were to the #1 [ranked wrestler] in the country, and one of those was in overtime. If I'm fortunate enough to have my tournament, I'm in position to win a national title. I could be, I'm right there, it's just a matter of putting it together on a certain weekend.

BGN: Do you have any rituals or superstitions before a match?

Lebe: I get the same warmup in every time, pace it to start an hour before we compete. With wrestling, after you make weight, you need to eat. You don't want to be too full but you need energy. After I make weight, we usually have a nutritious Gatorade shake, a power bar and a real little bit of pasta, but not too much, just a couple of noodles. The routine helps. I start to warm up two matches before mine, and then the match before, I really start focusing. It's a little unpredictable about the time. Sometimes if one of your teammates pins or gets pinned, or it might be double overtime, or longer or shorter, you have to be ready to go anytime.

BGN: What's the biggest difference in you as a wrestler since you came to WVU?

Lebe: When I was first in the lineup my redshirt freshman year, I just wanted to stay close with the top guys. If I wrestled someone who was supposed to be good, if I didn't get beat too bad, that was good. As I matured, I have believed in myself. We practice and train as hard as anyone. Believing in myself has made the biggest difference.

BGN: What are you expectations for the post-season?

Lebe: The EWL [WVU's conference for wrestling, the Eastern Wrestling League] is next weekend, the first weekend in March, at Edinboro. I really know these guys; I've wrestled all of them once already. The EWL is a nice place to gain momentum. I want to place in top three, and hopefully win. The goal is national tournament. The top three at EWL in each weight class go to the NCAAs. If you can put together a good week at EWLs, you can build on it.

BGN: Even at this point, is there anything you still feel you need to work on?

Lebe: I've been able to get off the bottom, but I still need to improve on my escape, to get away from the guys around the country who are really good on top, and avoid riding time.

BGN: This is a very young team. How do you feel about the future of wrestling at WVU?

Lebe: You're right. This is a very young team, but we will have Zac Fryling coming back next year. [Fryling, who wrestled his first two years at WVU in the 165 pound weight class, is redshirting this year, and will wrestle at 157 next year.] Zac's one of my roommates. He's starting to miss it a lot with postseason coming along. He's worked hard to get better in areas where he needs to improve, but the redshirt gave him a break, which will be good for him.

With this young team and Seth [Lisa] and me being the 2 seniors in the lineup all year, we've had to lead. We're not vocal, but we've tried to show the young guys the right way, especially through our training. They're good. They were a top 10 recruiting class last year and I can't say enough about how good they've been. I'll be very surprised if a bunch of the freshmen don't make it through [to the NCAAs], the way they've been progressing all year and the way they're working.

Being one of two seniors on a mostly freshman team has been a good transitional experience as I prepare to teach. The last two years I've been voted team captain, but Greg [Jones] was here. Leadership came from a lot of places, but when it came down to it, a lot of people looked to Greg. This year, the eyes were on me and Seth. This can only help me in the future.

BGN: Thanks, Matt, and good luck in the postseason.

Lebe: Thanks, and thanks to Blue and Gold News for all they do to get people interested in our sport.

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