Carver Hawkeye Fans motivate Dan Leclere
IOWA CITY -- What does a wrestler with a high school winning percentage of 98.8 and four individual state championships consider a career highlight?
If you're University of Iowa sophomore Dan LeClere, the marquee feather in his hat thus far was competing against Northern Iowa and Cornell College on Dec. 13.
"Putting on a show in Carver-Hawkeye Arena," said LeClere, a 141-pounder. "Four state titles are nice, but that was high school, it's over and nobody really cares. Everyone has won state titles at this level."
LeClere compiled a 167-2 record at North-Linn High School, with individual state gold medals in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005. He is one of 17 wrestlers in Iowa high school history to win four championships. Teammate Jay Borschel (Linn-Mar) is another.
"The only colleges I was looking at were Iowa and Virginia Tech," LeClere said. "Iowa was the school I wanted to wrestle for and Virginia Tech had the coach I wanted to wrestle for. I went with the coach."
He followed that coach back to Iowa. Current UI head coach Tom Brands, a four-time Hawkeye All-American and 1996 Olympic Gold medalist, served as head coach for the Hokies in 2005 and 2006 after spending 12 seasons as an assistant at Iowa. He was named head coach at his alma mater and during his first season led Iowa to a 14-5 dual record. Five former Virginia Tech wrestlers transferred to Iowa to compete for Brands -- LeClere, Borschel, Joe Slaton, Brent Metcalf and T.H. Leet. LeClere, Borschel and Slaton (Cedar Rapids Kennedy) are native Iowas.
"I like Dan's work ethic, attitude and approach to the sport," Brands said. "He's doing a good job getting himself ready to go each match. When an athlete does that, you see improvement day to day and week to week."
The Hawkeyes are off to a 7-0 start to the dual season and rated No. 1 in the nation. On Dec. 13, Iowa defeated Northern Iowa, 40-3, and Division III 10th-rated Cornell College, 51-0. LeClere defeated C.J. Ettelsen of UNI (another Iowa four-time high school champion), 8-2 before winning by 19-7 major decision over former high school teammate Ryan Mulnix of Cornell College. For the season, LeClere is 9-3 with three major decisions.
"I don't know how many times I've been one of the guys in the stands watching and cheering for the wrestlers down on the mat," LeClere said. "It's a great feeling being the one everyone is cheering for. When you pull the straps up on that Iowa singlet, it brings you to another level and you know it's time for business."
LeClere began wrestling in the family living room when he was four years old. By fourth grade he was venturing outside state lines to youth national tournaments. His father, Doug, taught him the basics and younger brother, Nick, who is also on the UI roster, was a live-in sparring partner.
"Wrestling came pretty natural to me," LeClere said. "I was hitting advanced moves and picking up on stuff when I was in third grade. From there, I started adding more technical, high-difficulty moves."
"The only colleges I was looking at were Iowa and Virginia Tech. Iowa was the school I wanted to wrestle for and Virginia Tech had the coach I wanted to wrestle for. I went with the coach."
LeClere was adopting a warrior mentality from his boyhood heroes, who just happened to compete for the Hawkeyes. There was four-time national finalist and three-time national champion Lincoln McIlravy as well as brothers Bill and Mike Zadick. But his most influential role model was four-time All-American and two-time national champion Mark Ironside, who won his final 68 collegiate matches.
"Ironside. Definitely Ironside," LeClere said. "He was the main one. I imprinted his style in my head when I was really young and that gave me a good start from a mentality point of view."
Earning a spot in the varsity lineup did not come easily for LeClere. Also at his 141 pound weight class is senior Alex Tsirtsis, who was an All-American in 2006 (seventh place at 141). But since LeClere had already exhausted a redshirt season, Brands appears ready to hold Tsirtsis out of competition this season, potentially extending LeClere-Tsirtsis practice wars through the 2008-09 season.
"It's a benefit for both of us," LeClere said. "Neither of us can be comfortable in the room because you're constantly fighting for that spot now. That helps both of us elevate our levels and you're never in a comfort zone. It makes it more difficult before you can wrestle in an Iowa singlet, but when you get out on the mat, you're that much more prepared."
LeClere isn't fazed by expectations of being a Hawkeye. The UI program has won 20 NCAA championships, crowned 215 All-Americans and 61 national champions. Iowa's last conference title was in 2004 and the last national crown was in 2000. LeClere understands that's an eternity when you reside in Hawkeye Country.
"I want to make a statement and get on top of the stand at nationals," LeClere said. "As a team we're shooting for a national title and getting Iowa back on top. We all believe we can do it, now we just have to bring it home."
Reaching the top of the awards podium will not be an easy climb for LeClere. He is currently rated 14th by Amateur Wrestling News and 18th by InterMat. There are no fewer than six Big Ten competitors ranked ahead of him in both polls.
"You can look up and down the rankings and everyone's tough," LeClere said. "I just have to knock them down one at a time."
LeClere is majoring in biology and when his wrestling days are finished, he hopes to become a chiropractor and -- not so coincidentally -- coach wrestling.
But there is still plenty of competition remaining for LeClere and this undefeated edition of Hawkeyes. In their minds, they have plenty to prove. In their minds, they have accomplished little.
"We haven't won anything yet," LeClere said. "We haven't won any championships and we're not going to be satisfied until we win championships. Just because we beat Iowa State doesn't mean we've accomplished our goals yet."