It was only two and half years ago when Jonathan Drendel was tabbed as the first-ever head coach for Williams Baptist University’s Greco-Roman program. Though a promising opportunity, there was also much work to be done.
Drendel had to start from scratch. Upon its inception, WBU Greco was fortunate enough to inherit several holdovers from the school’s accompanying NAIA folkstyle team. That helped lay down the roster’s foundation. From there, Drendel and former WBU folkstyle coach Kerry Regner (who conceived the program and is now the head at Millersville) went to work recruiting undercover prospects who were willing to bypass traditional college wrestling while embracing a new discipline that is famous for its unforgiving learning curve.
And to be sure, the WBU Greco athletes have taken their share of lumps. The majority of the roster is low on experience, and with the recent dearth of domestic events, gaining match minutes has proven difficult. That said, it has been hard to ignore the progress made by Williams’ Greco wrestlers in a short period of time and Drendel is the man responsible for their rapid improvement.
Unfortunately, that will no longer be the case. The coach is moving on. Drendel is stepping down as the head coach at Williams and will begin attending Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri next fall. Already a pastor, Drendel is passionate about continuing his calling to serve the Christian faith, though he will undoubtedly miss being involved with the program he helped launch.
So consider this an exit interview with one of the United States’ best young coaches and most valuable resources. In this report, Drendel overviews the U23 World Team Trials, assesses several of his top athletes, and discusses WBU’s future in Greco as well as its influence.
5PM: U23 is a focal point for most college-aged athletes in our country, especially college athletes who have yet to establish themselves at Senior. What did you think of Williams’ performance in Akron this year, what did you like the most, and what were the main areas you identified as needing improvement?
Coach Jonathan Drendel: Obviously, U23 is a very important tournament for us. But it’s also at a weird time of the year when most everything else has happened and guys are almost winding down. I feel to some extent that we didn’t have the performance I thought we would have had. In another sense, I think some guys stepped up and wrestled well. We had some openings in places where we had the potential to make the Team; and there were other instances where guys stepped up and put themselves in position to become successful in the future.
All in all, it was a mixed bag in terms of how tournaments go. I always want us to do better. There is always a higher ceiling. But the guys competed hard. The guys competed well, and for the most part, it should aid them in the future getting the matches they need to have.
5PM: Sean Sesnan at 55 kilos, I know you two have a good relationship. On occasion, he has flashed signs he has the makings of a viable competitor. Where does Sesnan leave off this season and what does he need to do heading into a year when the weight class will change?
JD: I think all in all that Sean was disappointed in the results he had this year, which for an athlete that isn’t always a bad thing. But what we’ve seen of Sean is that he has all of the elements to be successful. He is talented, works hard, learns quickly, and is tough. He’s just straight up tough. Once he starts believing in the talents he does have — they might not be the big, great back arches or the amazing, spectacular throws, although we do see some of those out of him, too — he is going to be successful, if he just believes in what he has. So getting over that hurdle and realizing that, Hey, I can wrestle with these guys and I can beat these guys. But it has to be consistent. If he can do that consistently, what he has shown and proven that he can do, then he can be very dangerous at this weight class.
Now obviously, for the guys at 55, this is going to be a weird year. But that’s wrestling. You suck it up, you figure it out, and step up to the task. Sean can do that and I believe he will. I think he has a very high ceiling in front of him.
5PM: 55 at Senior goes away in favor of the Olympic 60, but 55 is still going to be 55 at U23 I would imagine. Does Sean make a concerted effort to put on weight, or does he stay where he is knowing the U23 Trials are still available?
JD: I think for Sean, a little bit of both. He is a 55-kilo guy. But he has a good frame on him to where he can add muscle and still remain light. He’s not a weak 55, and he is not a guy who has trouble making weight. So he can add weight and continue to be strong, if not grow stronger than he already is, and continue to, in my opinion, wrestle in both weight classes. In the long run, he is 55 kilos and that is going to be his focus. Now, if he wants to make an Olympic Team, that’s a different conversation. But at the same time, he needs to stick to his weight class and be confident in that, and know what his priorities are this coming year.
5PM: Josh Wright was new to the program this year and made an impression. What do you like about his skills and why do you see him as a potential brickhouse at Senior eventually?
JD: Josh is extremely, extremely hardworking. I don’t know if I can find a guy who works as hard as he does, complains less, or learns better than him. Josh had a great, great first year. But at the same time, he can do better. He can do better because he does grow so quickly; he can do better because he does work so hard; and he can do better because adapts and learns. Josh’s future in Greco is huge. He has just taken to the style like he is walking. He is a natural Greco wrestler. But he also works incredibly hard. He wants to win. He knows what it takes to be successful and he will do what it takes to be successful. He is a guy people need to watch out for.
5PM: Tim Eubanks is coming on a little more. He has been with the program since it started, this year he got himself over to Europe, and he is in a competitive weight class that has a tendency to be stacked. Where is he at entering Year 3 of his full-time career?
Coach Jonathan Drendel: When it comes to Tim, in all reality, he hasn’t even gotten going yet. His Greco career is still really fresh, really new. He is still figuring out quite a few things. He is really talented — even if he doesn’t quite realize it. But he is still putting the pieces together. Once those pieces start to click, he is going to be really, really dangerous. Tim doesn’t wrestle like the typical guy. He is long, lanky, and big, so utilizing those attributes is going to be different than it is for most guys. As he begins to put that all together and gains more and more experience, he is just getting better and better and better.
Tim is a guy who when he came into my program, honestly, he wasn’t very good. And he knows that. Everyone on the team knows that. But everyone has seen how much better he has gotten except for him. Once he realizes how high and fast he is climbing, he is going to be a very dangerous competitor.
5PM: Well, when you look at him, he’s an underhook waiting to happen. Can’t teach that.
JD: Tim doesn’t fit into the typical mold, and that’s okay. That’s what wrestling is about. It’s about wrestling your own style, being your own person. If Tim wrestles his own style and does so as his own person, he is really hard to wrestle. But when he tries to wrestle like everybody else, he is very easy to wrestle. That is something he is working on overcoming. When he starts to figure out Man, I can underhook everybody and they can’t wrestle me, he is going to be really dangerous.
5PM: Devon Amburgy put forth some good results last year as a newbie. People forget that he had some moments against top guys. He was giving Daniel Miller some problems at the ’18 Open. This year he kept it up, and at the U23 Trials, made the semis. It was a really good tournament and he’s leaving this season on a high note. What makes him good? The fact he’s willing to try stuff, that he’s aggressive in the right moments? What has he figured out?
JD: The one thing I can say about Devon is that he knows when to pull the trigger. I think a lot of times that is a problem with American wrestlers. Not always, but a lot of times we want the perfect moment, the perfect instance, the perfect setup, and that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, you just have to pull the trigger and figure it out. Devon does that. Devon will pull the trigger. When it’s time for Devon to go, Devon goes.
Devon doesn’t look like much — until you get a hold of him. Then you start wrestling with him and he is as solid as a rock. You better not push or you’re going to end up on your back, because, he will pull the trigger. And I think that’s where Devon separates himself. He just goes. He just does. He wrestles his own style. He doesn’t wrestle like anyone else, he is going to wrestle like Devon Amburgy. He does that and it works out for him. And the more and more he does that, the more and more success he has, and will continue to have.
5PM: One of your better-known athletes has been Ryan Whittle, who is now set to join Kerry Regner as an assistant at Millersville. What does this move mean for him and do you have any sense if he will continue competing?
JD: First of all, Kerry Regner does a great job of putting the right guys in the right position and Ryan Whittle is absolutely the right guy for that position. They are going to kill it together in Millersville. If I was an athlete coming out of high school, that is a place that would be on my radar. They are going to do the right things, and man, they are going to put one heckuva team together, so I am excited to see what they are capable of.
Ryan has put himself in a position where he can continue to be involved in wrestling and I don’t know what sort of level that will be at. Whether Ryan chooses to compete again or not is up in the air. He is a tough young man. He understands what it takes to compete at the highest levels, and he understands the sacrifices that it takes. I believe he will make an informed decision about his future in the sport.
Regardless if he chooses to compete or not, he will continue to be an asset to wrestling. He will pump out athletes who will be able to compete on any level along with Kerry Regner and I believe they will do great things together. But as far as him competing, I am sure that will be a long, thought-out decision Ryan will make and I believe he’ll make the right one, whatever it turns out to be.
5PM: Now these questions get tougher. You are leaving the WBU program. It is not a decision you arrived at lightly. What has the process been like, especially considering that you also had to prepare your athletes for the most important time of year, the string of Trials tournaments and the Open?
Coach Jonathan Drendel: This has been an extremely hard process, a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. When I retired from wrestling, it was extremely hard. I had a lot of fans, friends, and people who supported me. But that decision just affected me. This decision to step down as the head coach and move on with my life affected a lot of people. It was hard to leave these guys. It was hard to let go.
I love my athletes. I love pouring into them, I love building them up, I love being in their corner. But ultimately, God has called me to something else, and my greatest joy in life is doing what God calls me to do. Making this decision was easy in that aspect because I know and I trust that God has something else for me.
But it was difficult, extremely difficult, in the fact that I was putting an end to a portion of my life that has been so fulfilling, so beneficial, so challenging, but so joyful. And having to do all that while preparing these guys to finish out their years and preparing them to set their foundations for the future really put me in an area of mixed feelings. There were false feelings at times, too, but mixed feelings, and there were even times when I questioned my decision. But ultimately, I know I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing and that God will take care of these young men. I have to trust that the things I have given them will benefit them in the future and put them in a place to be successful.
5PM: Does this seem like it has been a very fast ride? You knew you were going to be the coach by late-2016, you were officially announced in January of ’17. It’s only two-and-a-half years, but a lot has happened in that time. Because there is so much that has gone on and so much improvement, does it feel like it has been longer than two-plus years, or has it gone by in an eyeblink?
JD: It’s kind of a mixed bag. In one way, it feels like I’ve been doing this for ages. In another way, it feels like I just got my hands on this program. There were so many more things that I had in my mind to do — and a lot of those things had to be set aside to do what I know I’m supposed to do.
I have enjoyed every minute of it. It has been extremely hard. Much more challenging than I thought it would be. But the guys I’ve had are a treasure. The guys I’ve had are so valuable to me and they have made this a delight, positively a delight. In that way, it feels like it is the blink of an eye, as if I just have gotten my hands on these guys. There were also the hard days in the office just trying to get the program going, and then it feels like it has been a really long time.
5PM: The program’s status: as it stands now, do you feel you’re leaving it in a positive, upwards trajectory?
JD: It’s tough to say. I think what I have done here is that I’ve proven it can work. That it can work and be successful. But at this point, it’s up in the air. It is going to take some people stepping up. It is going to take some people stepping into the batter’s box and taking hold, and it’s going to take some people sacrificing to keep this going. I know that this program is setup to where if people do step into the batter’s box, it can and will be successful. Really, that’s the key right now. If that happens, we’re going to look back at this time and say that this was the turning point for the program. But if not, we are going to sit back and look at what could have been.
5PM: That leads into the next question then. You said that the program has proven to the school that it can work, that it is a sustainable, fruitful entity for scholar athletes to pursue. It is also the first of its kind. Williams is an enrollment-driven private institution. Do you see the possibility that this model can be replicated by other coaches at similar colleges so they can have their own Greco programs like Williams’?
JD: Oh, absolutely. And I honestly don’t know what people are waiting for. The iron is hot and it’s time to strike. We are at a great time in our country for Greco-Roman wrestling. The allotment of athletes out there is larger than it has ever been, the talent pool is larger than it has ever been. Children are traveling the world to compete in Greco-Roman wrestling. When have we ever had that before? It’s time for people to step up and realize that this works, and that it is something people should want to be a part of. The program works and it will work somewhere else. So I’m ready to see people get it done.
5PM: Prior to taking over the head coaching role, you coached on the NAIA side, and you coached on other levels at times, as well. But being a head coach, of course, comes with a litany of different responsibilities. On top of everything else, you are also a pastor. What have you learned from being the primary leader for athletes and how does that dynamic fit in with your pastoral life? What have you taken from one dynamic and applied towards the other?
Coach Jonathan Drendel: I honestly think I led my program like a pastor. My guys may not have always thought that when I was hammering down on them and making them sprint all hours of the night. But I honestly think I led this program like a pastor. My role as a pastor is to challenge, to build up, to encourage, and to equip. Those are all of the same things I do as a wrestling coach. They are applied in a different way, but they are the same tools. In some ways, they work together. In some ways, they conflicted. Sometimes I think my mind was in two different places, and it’s impossible to sit on the fence.
But I am going to take away a lot of what I learned about relationships from being a head wrestling coach. Pouring into these guys has challenged me. These are guys who have had real problems and who have real passions about what they’re doing. Maybe some guys who aren’t passionate enough and maybe some guys who struggle with confidence. All of these things are issues people go through. All of these are things good people struggle with but don’t necessarily wear out on their sleeve.
We are all people who are struggling, as much as we might not want to admit that at times. We are all struggling. Wrestling is a struggle. That’s what the word means, it means “to struggle.” And seeing that rendered in a very real, physical, and tangible way in wrestling teaches me a lot about what goes through the human mind, what we struggle with eternally. I had a high school wrestling coach, Mike DeNova, who said that the way you wrestle is the way you do everything in life. The more and more I have experienced wrestling, the more and more I have realized that to be true. Realizing that and learning that has helped me a ton in my pastoral career.