Valenti Pins Wrestling Championship

By David Porter | How often does life serve up a perfect storm of circumstances so that an opportunity for personal achievement comes with a side helping of retribution? Certainly not often enough to pass up or take lightly. Junior Matt Valenti made the most of his, and now sits at the top of his sport.

To set the stage, let’s rewind back to the middle of the 2003-04 wrestling season at Penn, when Valenti suffered a shoulder injury in a bout against Purdue’s Chris Fleeger. Rather than scotch the rest of the season—he’s a wrestler, after all, and they tend to be some of the toughest athletes on the planet—Valenti competes through the pain and manages to finish with a 36-6 overall record and place fifth at the NCAA championships, good enough for All-America designation. But the injury forces him to undergo surgery that August, and he misses the following season.

Now, spring forward to this March and the NCAAs at Oklahoma City. Valenti reaches the title bout at 133 pounds. Waiting for him is Fleeger, the wrestler responsible for his injury, the surgery, and the months of rehabilitation and self-doubt that followed. “It was definitely in the back of my head, there was no doubt about that,” Valenti recalled.

Six grueling minutes later it was Valenti raising his arms in triumph as the NCAA champion after a grinding match that turned on his ability to keep Fleeger locked in the bottom, or “down” position, unable to escape or pull a reversal to score the decisive points.

“Going in, I knew Chris Fleeger very well,” he said. “I had wrestled against him, I had practiced against him. I knew everything he did, and he knew everything I did. So it turned into a chess match with both guys waiting for their chance, because you knew if you made a mistake you’d get in trouble. So I played a waiting game. When the match ended, it was just a rush of so many emotions.”

In addition to his own considerable abilities, Valenti’s success can be traced to two other sources: former coach Roger Reina, for boosting his confidence and getting him in the right frame of mind to visualize himself among the sports elite, and current coach Zeke Jones, for adding the strategy and tactics that put him over the top.

Reina, who departed Penn before the 2005-06 season after 19 years in which he elevated the program’s profile on a national scale, “had a way of making people see something in themselves that maybe they hadn’t seen before,” Valenti said. “He definitely was one of the first people who really believed in me.”

Jones brought a different approach to the Quakers when he arrived last fall, according to Valenti. Where Reina had counseled wrestlers to concentrate on whatever style worked for them, Jones focused on specific techniques. The transition wasn’t easy at first.

“It was a learning process for me as well as the team,” said Jones. “Matt took a leadership role right away, keeping the team together and organized, moving in the right direction.”

Jones also brought to Penn a considerable record of achievement on the mat that included six national championships, a world championship, and an Olympic silver medal.

In Valenti he saw a wrestler who, with a few tweaks, had a chance to bring home some hardware of his own. “He had all the tools to compete for a national title, it was just developing a strategy and style that would work at the national championships,” said Jones. “That was probably the main thing we did, to add strategy and tactics to his wrestling.”

The strategy encompassed what Jones called creating a “dominating” style of wrestling in which wrestlers used conditioning as a weapon and waged an all-out attack on opponents—not recklessly, but always in control, particularly in the latter stages of a bout when fatigue becomes a factor.

For Valenti, there was also a focus on controlling from the “top” position at the start of a period. Wrestlers choose top or bottom to begin each period; the wrestler on the bottom starts with his hands and knees on the mat while his opponent starts next to him with one arm around his waist and the other grabbing his arm. According to Jones, the majority of bouts at the NCAA championship level are won and lost based on what happens from this position as opposed to when the wrestlers face each other on their feet.

It paid off against Fleeger as the bout was scoreless after one period and Valenti controlled Fleeger—“rode” him—from the top for the entire second period. Valenti started on the bottom in the third period and earned two points for a reversal when he got the upper hand and got control of Fleeger. Fleeger returned the favor later in the period to tie the score, but Valenti wound up winning, based on having more “ride time.”

Now Valenti gets to come back next season in the role of defending champion. Jones, who knows a thing or two about defending titles, offers an interesting take on the challenge. “People will say he’s the defending champion, but he’s not really defending his championship,” said Jones. “He’ll always have that—whether he wins another one next season or he doesn’t. They’ll never be able to take that away from him. So it’s really about him trying to win another national title. The nice thing is, he’s been through the process and he knows what to do.”

David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.

©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 05/05/06

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