Interviews

Cadet World Team Coach Zac Dominguez On Why 2017 “Feels Good”

zac dominguez
Zac Dominguez -- Photo: Jodeane Newcomb Brownlee

It’s simple. You talk to Zac Dominguez and it is blatantly obvious he believes everything he is saying. How the young generation of coaches coming up have played a pivotal role in bolstering the United States Greco-Roman program at the developmental levels. How Greco can better take from its folkstyle cousin so as to translate into more success. And why this year’s US Cadet World Team, of which he is a co-head coach along with Lucas Steldt, is poised to break out in Athens. Dominguez doesn’t mind serving up his perspectives on a big, shiny, gold-rimmed plate. He’s an optimist, you can tell by the sound of his voice. It’s energetic, passionate, and echoes with the kind of positivity that inspired coaches tend to have when discussing something they love.

At the end of the day, that’s what this is to him. Dominguez is in love with Greco-Roman. At his MWC Wrestling Academy in Papillion, Nebraska, the Northern Michigan “OG” (Dominguez was one of the collegiate Greco program’s earliest members) finds ways to feature the style throughout the year and requires everyone participate in it during the “summer season.” This isn’t out of some egomaniacal brand of forcefed coaching. Rather, it’s because Dominguez is utterly convinced that learning Greco-Roman is too valuable to his wrestlers to see them miss out on what it can offer. This approach has led to two things: Nebraska jumping back into the national conversation and also, Dominguez’s selection as a coach for this year’s World Team.

Before he goes off to Athens with the talented US squad so many have high hopes for, it seemed like a good idea to get an idea of where Dominguez sees Greco at the moment. His background, as substantial as it is, is only part of the story. When he gets on a roll, the coach has no problem explaining the issues he feels require fixing or touting the recent improvements which have made a big difference in the way the style is perceived. Above all, Dominguez shares what it is he’s looking forward to the most about this latest chapter in his coaching career and of course, what it all means to him.

5PM Interview with Zac Dominguez

5PM: The three states that are always talked about in regards to Greco are usually Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, but Nebraska has its own strong tradition, too. Why does Nebraska get overlooked when it’s a state proven to be capable of turning out solid Senior-level athletes?

Zac Dominguez: Personally, I believe it’s a brick-force attack. We’ve had Brad Vering, RaVaughn (Perkins), Dante Rodriguez on the World Team and we hadn’t put someone on the Cadet World Team in awhile. We’ve had multiple national champions and guys who are growing, but Nebraska is under the radar because it has been one guy at a time. That’s not a bad thing — don’t get me wrong. We’ve had a good history of Greco.

When I was at Nebraska, Matt Lindland, Rulon Gardner, Justin Ruiz, myself, Josh Henson — these were all Greco guys. We were all there at the same time training with each other. It was a great thing we had going on and then of course, Matt recommended I go to Northern Michigan because they started it that year (in 1999). So I went. Then Brad finished at Nebraska and obviously went on to great things, a silver medal (at the World Championships) and he was an Olympian. Lindland was recruiting Greco guys and he was having success, winning with Greco guys, which was awesome. He then won a silver (at the Olympics) in 2000 and I spent some time with him down at the Olympic Training Center.

It was great. We had a really good run in Greco during the 90’s. Within three or four years, there were like five or six Fargo Junior national champions. It was awesome. But then the leadership changed at the college, which was really part of the state, and it just kind of came down from there. And then Mark Manning came in, and not that he’s a bad coach, but he’s more freestyle-oriented. It literally made a complete switch from Greco to freestyle, and that’s how the state went. Freestyle is much larger and harder to make a team, where in Greco, we never really slowed down. We just put one or two in as opposed to five or six. But recently, Nebraska has produced 12 Greco All-Americans the last two years and three national finalists this year in Cadets and a national champ in Phillip Moomey.

It’s just a matter of who is leading the pack. I love Greco and it’s an even league. Kids like to win in our state and our high school wrestling is a lot of stand up. We don’t do a lot of folkstyle referee’s position, there aren’t very many of them. They are more apt to stay on their feet and try to throw you out of bounds. It’s natural, I don’t know why. If you were to go to our high school state tournament, you’d see more of that than you would guys throwing those good legs in or scrambling, things of that nature which give a freestyle look. We have much more of a “Greco look”, in my humble opinion. And we have since I can remember, from 1990 till now. We’ve always had a Greco approach to wrestling in our state.

5PM: How about your club, which wields a lot of influence in Nebraska? I’m sure that isn’t a coincidence. How do you approach the sport to kids who might not even be interested in Greco in the first place?

ZD: Well for me, it’s mandatory. And by mandatory, what I mean is that I say, If you’re going to go to a tournament and you want me to coach, your kid has to be versed in both styles. He might be a freestyle wrestler going long-term, which is just fine with me, but he’s going to need a good Greco foundation to help his freestyle, and vice-versa. You need to have that level-change scenario with how your brain works for Greco. I think it’s a deal where they co-exist. I don’t call it freestyle or Greco practice, I say, It’s Freco season, here we go boys and girls. And if girls want to wrestle Greco, even though they don’t have a competitive Greco option yet, then I want them to. I encourage it. I say, Yep, go wrestle Greco. Do what you like.

But it’s a thing where I will scold you in the room, and I know this sounds horrible, but if you have been in the room with me for more than that year, you can’t not wrestle Greco or skip out on freestyle, either. I need to see them do both because it is only going to add to their development. Young kids need development. They’re 14 or 15 years old and some of them never even stepped out of the state. That’s development. If they don’t have it, it’s not going to work long-term. If they want to go to college and wrestle and they have already been an All-American, it’s still going to add to their resume, it doesn’t matter what it is. I don’t care if you wrestle folkstyle and that’s where you career ends. That’s okay. But you still have that opportunity and it’s mandatory in my room.

I literally scold you if you don’t do both. So if you’re a kid who has been with me, like a Camden Russell or a Conor Knopick, I’ll tell them, You should just wrestle Greco, it’s just what you should do. Wrestle freestyle, too. Do them both because if you don’t, you’ll be worse off because of the coach (laughs). That’s just how I handle it internally a lot of times and it’s a for-real reason why you can’t just wrestle either one. I’m a huge advocate for development, especially for the younger ones. 14-18 is still development, in my opinion. You’re not a grown man at 18 years old, you’re still developing. Our 92 pounder, Kase Mauger, is still in development, but he’s a hammer. I can’t wait to watch him wrestle. But he’s still young, so I’ve got to treat him like a 14-year-old, I’m not going to treat him like he’s 18 just because he can wrestle well.

5PM: First and foremost, you’re a Greco guy. You might be an all-style coach, but you are a Greco coach before everything else. We come to this conversation all the time and that is, folkstyle wrestling is the preeminent style in the US. When it comes to development for Greco, we say that we need kids to become involved in the style sooner. But wouldn’t the other part of that discussion be that we don’t take advantage of the folkstyle background enough and apply it as well as we could, either?

ZD: It does make sense to work with it because it is such a huge force. We have the monster conglomerate that is the NCAA. Trying to convince the NCAA to do it our way would be like me banging my head against the wall and not expecting it to hurt (laughs). Within that principle, absolutely, as a coach, you can specialize in the style you prefer, be that folkstyle, freestyle, or Greco. Obviously, I specialize in the world of Greco. I’ve made it so that when I see a kid who wrestles folkstyle and has a good elbow pass or has a good two-on-one to a single or works from an underhook, I tend to glorify it like, Hey man, that’s a great Greco position. You wrestle really good folkstyle. That kind of piques their interest because now they’re like, Wait, what do you mean? So I’ll say, You’re already doing half the work, just do the rest of it in Greco.

I walk through positions with kids a lot and I’ll ask them to show me their best folkstyle moves from the feet. It’s usually a single, double or a high crotch, or something of that nature. Which then turns into a duck-under, a slide-by or a high-dive, depending on what the kid is shooting. In the end, I’ll point out that, Your footwork doesn’t need to change, it’s just where you put your hands. I do spend a lot of time doing that. I work with it rather than against it.

I don’t tell them that winning a state title is meaningless by comparison to winning the Worlds — don’t get me wrong, after they win the Worlds I’ll say, That runner-up you got at the states wasn’t such a bad thing now, was it? You have to get to that point where things are shinier on the Greco side. I work with other coaches all the time in the state of Nebraska to whom I’ll say, You guys are already teaching stand-up, right? In order to emphasize Greco a little bit, you show the kids that they are already doing it. We have some coaches who are really great at top-bottom, that is where they make their living and that’s great. But they’ll respond, How can they even shoot? No one said you can’t, you just can’t touch the legs. You can’t grab the legs, but you still have to use your legs to get to the body, get to the corner, get to an angle. Nothing is changing except where we’re putting our hands.

I work with a lot of the folkstyle coaches this way and I tend to try to complement their style of coaching so their kids go, Oh, this ain’t so bad. It then turns into, Oh, I can do Greco. It’s the same way with freestyle. I’ll tell the coaches, It’s nothing but the speed of transitions. They shoot, you score. It’s not about control. I don’t have to hold you down and control you to score, I just have to expose you.

5PM: Part and parcel with this conversation is Fargo. This became a bulletpoint a few weeks ago. We had several big Greco prospects with serious experience lose in the tournament, which has happened before. So this causes a divide it would seem in how Greco is competed internationally and the way Greco is taught in this country. It takes a different style of Greco to win at Fargo then the one required to be successful against foreigners, or so that is how it appears, these days especially.

Zac Dominguez: I would call it a disconnect, but I would also deem it a language barrier problem. Not enough people know they should be at UWW Cadets. I wonder if the amount of kids who go to Fargo would go to that tournament, but it’s because of their coaches, right? The language of the world says, This is a more important tournament, you should probably go HERE. And I don’t know why that doesn’t happen more often. Coaches don’t put it out there as much as they should. But then you look at Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois, they’re all there. And they are still earning medals at Fargo, too. They are earning medals at the UWW Cadets and at Fargo, and winning the Cadet or Junior World Trials and making the top eight at Fargo. The reason why they may not make the finals at Fargo, I think, is because match count is a little higher, weigh-ins are longer, the tournament competition is a little longer, and there is a little bit of a difference in the way the tournament is set up and the way it is run.

I train totally different with my group for the UWW Cadets and Junior World Team Trials than I would for Fargo. There are two phases I go with. One, is for UWW and prior, and the other is for UWW and after. It is a totally training phase. We do more timed go’s as opposed to longer go’s. We do less matches with longer breaks and recovery for UWW. And then shorter breaks and shorter recovery for Fargo. The beast of Fargo, it’s such a big tournament. The more matches you have, the more risk you have, right? The risk to get tired, the risk to get hurt, the risk to miss weight, the risk to eat less…anything can happen. Especially coming from a folkstyle guy who might be winning matches and he’s got a good headlock, let’s say. You have to pay attention differently, because you don’t see as many headlocks at UWW, you see more two-on-one’s and underhooks because it’s a higher level. They are coming from positions where this kid may just jump on you and try to throw a headlock. It’s crazy, but they’re not wrestling from positions. They are grab-and-go. That’s the difference, which does change the pace of the match and how you’re wrestling.

In short, there is a disconnect, but it is a disconnect on language. The coach who goes to Fargo is a great coach, don’t get me wrong, but it relates back to a high school type scenario for him. It’s the same periods, the same scoring. Follow the sessions, follow the brackets. UWW Cadets is a little different. It’s shorter periods, it’s an eight-point tech fall. It’s weirder for them. It’s a different tournament. Oh, it’s an eight-point tech fall, what does that mean? They ask questions they probably don’t need to be asking, but since it’s different rules, they say, Oh, I’m not going to go. And that is why I believe the freestyle brackets at UWW Cadets and Juniors Trials are larger than the Greco side, because there is a variance in the rules. They’re shorter periods and less points for Cadets, and the style of wrestling is different. It’s a folkstyle mentality at Fargo. Not that we’re not wrestling Greco, but it’s a different Greco than what we’d see at the Worlds and the Trials. There we see that World-level Greco look and higher-level coaches, which can be intimidating to a lot of coaches.

I’ve got an assistant coach who just started Greco-Roman coaching and he’s been doing it one year, and I’ve seen other coaches do this. They say, Oh, I’ve got to coach against Dan Chandler, I’ve got to coach against Brandon Paulson. Brandon is going to get up to argue about a point, not that he’s doing this on purpose, but he gets up to argue a point, and my coach might say, Oh, he’s got a silver in the Olympics, he’s got to be right (laughs). It is a mentality, a language problem, and a disconnect between the two tournaments, and that’s why we’re not seeing the same results over and over, though logically, we should.

zac dominguez at 2015 worlds

Dominguez, shown here at the 2015 Junior World Championships in Salvador, Brazil, believes a “language barrier problem” is partly responsible for wrestlers skipping out on the UWW World Team Trials. (Photo: YouTube)

5PM: Why has the mood kind of shifted towards Greco a little more throughout the last couple of years? In years past, Greco wasn’t quite as “cool” as it is currently. What has been the change, or where do you think the change has come from? What would you point to regarding the growth of the style?

ZD: I go back to Lindland, we’ve got a good mouthpiece there and he’s a fantastic coach. But he also has a lot of experience with selling something. Not that we’re selling Greco nor should we try to sell the most fantastic sport in the world. But he runs gyms, he’s an ex-UFC/MMA fighter, so he understands what it takes to sell himself, which he already knew how to do because it’s easy to sell a silver in the Olympics. That’s easy to do, I could do it, I could go out and run a camp.

But essentially, he just took that vision of his and started expanding it. About three years ago, as a club-owner on my end, my young kids I’ve started to push out. It’s the same way for anyone in Wisconsin or Minnesota. You’ve got Coach (Lucas) Steldt, you have (Bryan) Medlin, but he’s been doing it awhile. He’s got Illinois. They had 99 Junior wrestlers from Illinois this year at Fargo. 99. It’s just amazing, who’s going to beat them? I told him he’s cheating. I said, “You come to Nebraska, I’ll go to Illinois and I’ll do the same thing.” He always laughs. Now he’s the coach at the RTC, so kudos to him. But it takes people like that from underneath and establishing themselves, so now Medlin might be able to push it a little more at the RTC in Illinois to have Greco. That would be awesome at the University of Illinois, to have a great college team with a coach who says, Let’s do some Greco. I was trying to do that at the time when I was at UNO (University of Nebraska-Omaha) before we got dropped. I had my brother and All-Americans coming out of UNO in Greco at Universities, we were just getting going and in 2011, they dropped our program.

But — I would attribute the rise of Greco to guys who are my age and younger, or similar, who are finding their way back into the sport and coaching these kids, getting them to tournaments and from place to place. I mean, Lucas Steldt is doing an amazing job, he took that team over to Serbia and Croatia and I had a few kids on that team who all said it was incredible. And to be honest with you, Greco is more fun. It’s not business, it’s fun for these young kids. If you got thrown, you get to throw back. We’ve redesigned the way we coach Greco. It hasn’t changed, but it is coached differently by the younger generation, i.e., Bryan Medlin, Brandon Paulson, Lucas Steldt, myself, and Ike Anderson still does a great job. We have several young coaches who are putting their feet in the ground saying, We love Greco and we want to coach it, but we need to redesign not how it is taught, but how it is coached.

5PM: Speaking Steldt, how has it been getting to know him?

ZD: It’s been awesome. Lucas is fantastic. He runs a great program up there. We’ve actually competed against each other a couple of different times. I have a young man named Isaiah Alford and his guy beat my guy in the Greco semifinals and wound up in the finals. I love doing it. He actually coached one of my kids, Conor Knopick, which is really cool, in Serbia and Croatia, and wound up having to coach against him in Fargo because he was in Hunter Lewis’s corner.  I spent some time with Hunter Lewis at the Olympic Training Center in late-June and I worked with Hunter on a couple of things with him and had a great time. He’s an excellent young man. Hunter ends up beating my guy and now Coach Steldt is up 2-0, so I have to get him back (laughs).

But the whole point is, I enjoy that competition with Coach Steldt and it has really helped us grow as working teammates in terms of coaching. He’s coached my kids and I’ve helped coach his kids, and I don’t know if Hunter is his kid, I just know he was in his corner. But it’s been great. Lucas has great knowledge, he loves the kids, he loves supporting the sport, and is just phenomenal at what he’s doing. His technique is great, his delivery is awesome, and I couldn’t ask for a better co-coach going over to Athens.

On our staff is Lucas and I, but I also know that Lindland, (Gary) Mayabb, Harry Lester, and Ivan Delchev are coming. It’s going to be six of us over there, which is amazing. That’s actually the first time I’ve seen Greco have more coaches than freestyle, and that’s saying something (laughs).

5PM: Your reputation has been well-established for a long time despite your relative youth. What does it mean to you having been named as a coach for the Cadet World Team at this point in your career?

ZD: Number one, it’s a huge, huge honor. It means a lot to me. A lot. I am young, or at least, younger than most people coaching at that level. It makes me feel good that the work I have done, the experience I have, and the kids I’ve worked with is acknowledged. They do pay attention. I also hold the position of chairman for the Coaches’ Council, so I get a lot of wisdom from the other coaches on my council, and I really enjoy coaching over and over and over. I tell the kids, If I don’t better myself as a coach, then why would I expect you to as an athlete? If I’m not growing, they’re not growing, and vice-versa, if I’m growing, they are, too.

It is overwhelmingly awesome. The kids I get to work with and learn from along with the coaches I get to work with and learn from, I’m always super-excited to visit with them and listen to them talk. I’ve just been blessed to be able to coach and do the things that I do in this sport.

5PM: For you personally, what are you looking forward to the most about coaching in Athens? What are you hoping to experience?

ZD: Oh, I am absolutely looking forward to shaking hands with some of those coaches, hearing them coach and observing when I’m not coaching. Just observing and paying attention to what’s being done. I’ll stay late just to watch coaches talk to their athletes because there is always something to be learned. I’ll stick around and I’ll learn more. Obviously, I am going there to coach and help the kids do their best, but it is also to learn just as much as I’m coaching. So for me, I want to learn. I want to go over there, I want to see what Russia is doing and how they’re doing it. I want to watch them coach. Georgia, Poland…any of those countries. Because to be honest with you, in 2015 I went with the Junior team to Brazil, so there wasn’t a huge European contingency coming over because the distance was a lot. But in Athens, we’re going to catch all of the “local Greco countries” over there, which is all of them, and I’ll get a chance to observe, learn, and become more immersed in a higher-level of thinking and be able to fine-tune the philosophies I have as far as coaching goes and the way I look at coaching. To just become a better coach. That way when I come home, I’ll be able to put a kid on a World team, coach better Greco, have a better philosophy behind coaching.

You can never learn too much, and that’s one of the first things I was told when I first became a coach. The moment you stop learning is the time you should stop coaching. I want to make sure I bring home as much as I possibly can through videos, through a camera, holding my phone up so it can catch the way a coach is instructing their guy. Just hearing them talk is important because every kid is different. And if I can learn how to talk to every kid, then that means I’m a better coach.

5PM: This year, there was a lot of synchronicity regarding the training. The Cadets enjoyed a lot of time at the OTC with several camps since the team was selected. That seems to add to the different vibe around the team as opposed to years past, right?

ZD: Absolutely. I remember in 2016, the biggest thing Matt said was “We have to have the camaraderie. Our guys need to be on the same page.” The flow must be good, right? What’s that from Jerry McGuire, the “kwan”, the kwan has to be nice (laughs). But that’s what it is. We established that with the Seniors and we’re trickling it down now to Cadets. We obviously had a great Junior Worlds, we wanted a better one of course, but we had a champion in Kamal (Bey) and a runner-up being a guy who wasn’t supposed to be there, then (Taylor) LaMont doing really well, making the medal match. That is all now trickling to the Cadets because now these kids are saying, Hey, I was practicing with those guys! We were all hanging out, we’re buddies, we’re all doing it the right way, and for younger kids, it is important for them to be around that kind of fellowship, that kind of Greco brotherhood.

Matt did a great job of bringing that all the way down to the Cadets and both he and Gary did the same thing with the coaches. Gary, Lucas, myself, it has been like ten of us in this conversation every month — What are we doing better? How are we doing it better? What’s coming up? And we’re always trying to better the Greco-Roman coaching approach, as well. And it’s coming. The transition from folkstyle to freestyle will always be tough to beat, but it doesn’t mean we can’t start biting back a little harder to where kids go from saying, I think I want to wrestle Greco, to I’m going to wrestle Greco. I’ve got two or three kids at my club who are now saying, Coach, I don’t think I want to wrestle folkstyle in college anymore, I want to wrestle Greco. Great, let’s hammer this out.

5PM: There is a lot of confidence surrounding this year’s Cadet World Team. There are a couple of returning members, one of which is heralded as an uber-prospect. Mixed in is a group of talented kids who were recognized even prior to this year. Why should American fans have this confidence and optimism regarding the Cadet squad in Athens?

Zac Dominguez: In order for us to say that, we have to have a couple of things in place. We have returners, so that’s good. One of our better prospects has traveled quite a bit this year and he’s competing and making medals a lot overseas, and that goes for a couple of other ones who have traveled a little bit more than your normal Cadet group. But in my opinion, it comes back to the coaches. We actually have solid Greco coaches coaching these young men since Day 1, before they made this team. They have been well-versed by their coaches, whether that’s a Lester, Steldt, Dominguez, or Delchev, whose own son was an Olympian in freestyle, but he’s obviously very well-versed coming from overseas here to the United States. We have Gary and he’s been doing a great job with camps, just putting them in so they are getting that experience, that feel, that know-how. That, to me, is what makes it feel so good.

I’m going to go coach Harry Lester’s kid, right? He knows Greco. Harry knows Greco. So I get to coach a kid who already knows Greco, meaning we get to coach at a higher level. Not just Harry, but any of them. These kids have all been around Greco guys, not that they haven’t been before, but this goes back to the younger generation of coaches coming up who say, We can coach these kids. We can put them on the stand, we can help them reach their potential. We all believe our kids have potential, we just have to get them there. That’s what our job is, and that’s why I think it feels good. We’ll know in the end whether it’s a good feeling or not, but right now to me, it feels good.

Obviously, there are other things at play here. It’s a two-hour weigh-in this year. Americans have been doing that for a long time. Foreigners have not. We have good training cycles. Our kids are going home to their coaches, we’re not just sending them back to a folkstyle coach, and I’m not making fun of folkstylers, but I’m not sending them home to a coach who is saying, Oh, what are we going to do with him now? I’ve been trying to make sure I stay in contact, I’ve been sending emails. You treat these kids like they don’t know, but parents don’t know, either. So I send out packing lists, I tell them we should be starting our weight management right now, we should be on our way down instead of waiting until the last minute. I’m overindulging in education a little bit, but I hope to hit them every three days. We’re at Day 14, we should be managing our weight and hitting this practice plan, they need this, they need that… I want them to understand that we care and that we really want the best for their boys. I’m giving them the academic side of it through what I know of our sport and doing whatever research I can to help them.

But that’s why it feels good. We have sound kids, and even more sound coaches, along with returning wrestlers who understand the past a little bit better than they would if they were just brand new.

Follow Coach Zac Dominguez on Twitter and Instagram for updates regarding the 2017 US Cadet Greco-Roman World Team.

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