What do you do when you are trying to bring more Division II wrestling coverage to the fans and you have a weekend off from work? I was faced with that conundrum last week and I had myself an idea, what if I traveled four hours south to St Louis. I even had a built-in babysitter in my oldest sister and her family. I have a four-year-old and she has two kids right around the same age. I could drop her off with my sister and give my wife a weekend with just her and our eight-week-old, while I took the chance to visit three Division II wrestling powerhouses all within 45 minutes of each other. How could I pass up an opportunity like this? Three emails later and I had visits set up with #4 McKendree University, #5 Lindenwood University, and #9 Maryville University. The trifecta!
Lindenwood University has come a long way from the all-girls finishing school that began in 1830. It has come even farther from the nearly bankrupt institution in 1989. It now offers 51 NCAA sports, has an endowment that continues to grow, and leadership that is pushing the university forward into the new millennia. A campus that is a perfect blend of old and new, Lindenwood is an affordable private school offering a big city feel in a suburb. The second you pull up to the campus, you begin feeling like you have found an oasis of calm. Just off the interstate and across from a shopping center that the university of owns, there sits Lindenwood University just waiting to be explored. Its name is derived from the beautiful linden trees all over campus and featured throughout the architecture, including in the state-of-the-art library.
I am worried that the library might actually be the beginning of the rise of the machines, but should Judgement Day not occur, be sure to check out the space-saving shelves. They slide together and a touch-screen allows you to select the book you want to find. You can see the video on my Twitter if you want to see the first step towards Terminators taking us over.
There is a lot of history on campus, the horse stables are the athletics weight room. There are original buildings from the early 1900s. Trees that have stood since before Daniel Boone was born. By the way, the University used to own his home until they donated it to the city of St Charles. Travel along the historic Mississippi river that you can see from the old city center. A now bustling revitalized center is full of one of a kind restaurants and shops. On-campus there is even a water tower straight out of the Stephen King novel “It”. I am serious, check it out!
I told Lindenwood wrestling head coach Jimmy Rollins that if I had seen a red balloon, I would have cut the visit short and left tire marks on the pavement as I sped away in my F-150.
Leaving that behind, I was treated with a walk to the Hyland Center. The site of the Lindenwood Lions wrestling, basketball, and volleyball competitions. It also the home of the Lions wrestling room, for now.
As you walk into the wrestling room you should take the time to appreciate the amazing graphics on the doors. And then you walk into the room and it is all business.
I was lucky enough to be visiting on the Saturday mini-tournament that head coach Jimmy Rollins uses to decide the challengers in the Black & Gold wrestle-off. I was treated to a view of future Lion talents like Michael Kramer (Tennessee) and Kalen Napier (Texas). There are some amazing wrestlers on the Lion squad right now, including national qualifiers like Tanner Hitchock and Voss Morrow. And they are returning All-Americans Danny Swan and Gavin Londoff. And of course, there is the returning national champion at 125, Carlos Jacquez.
There are only two roster spots that head coach Jimmy Rollins would confirm for me, Jacquez and their talented and now-healthy heavyweight Voss Morrow. Morrow was a national qualifier last season in his first season on the mat in two-plus years. Do not be fooled by the pet he owns, Morrow is a tough man who is going to challenge for a spot on the podium this season. I will let him tell you about his awesome pet.
Gavin Londoff made the transition from Division I Appalachian State to Lindenwood and after qualifying for the national tournament with an overtime third-place finish in Super Regional IV, he went on to finish in third place and is the second-ranked wrestler at 149. That is if he will wrestle at that weight. He is one of the three wrestlers I spoke to that all gave the stock, “Lindenwood has a great weight program” answer to my questions about where in the lineup they would be wrestling. Thanks a lot, coach Rollins! You can listen to him talk about last season, widening the gap, and why Lindenwood was a great fit for him.
The “bash brothers” Tanner Hitchcock and Danny Swan were a fun chat even though Rollins had coached them on what they were absolutely not allowed to say.
They are a great dynamic for this lineup and when you add new transfer Colby Smith to the mix, wherever the four of these young men compete for Lindenwood, there is a chance for coach Rollins to have All-Americans at the first five weights. If he can do that, he could bring home Lindenwood’s first Division II national title to add to the NAIA banners hanging on the wall.
The one thing I kept hearing over and over again from athletes and coaches was the idea of “family”. This is not just a team, this is a family unit. There are so many different personality dynamics that coach Rollins, as well as assistant coaches Dallas Smith and Jonce Blaylock, are melding together. Their ability to bring out the best of these young men as they develop and mature is indicative of the staff he has. I was able to grab his assistants and while they were still under the same gag order as the wrestlers about weight classes, I did get them to open up. Even the former Oklahoma State Cowboy had a few things to say when coach Smith gave him a chance to talk.
When coach Rollins talks about his University you can feel the passion he has. On our tour, he made sure to introduce me to everyone he met. He wanted me to see everything the school had to offer and the support he has from those on campus. I enjoyed shaking hands with the NCAA compliance officer, the President of the University, a man who just finished the Kona Ironman with a broken arm, and brand new women’s wrestling head coach Mike Mena. The four-time Iowa All-American was taking a tour of campus with one of his daughters and immediately wanted a picture taken. How could I say no? Two great coaches building the Lindenwood wrestling brand and a young woman who may take advantage of one of the bevies of bachelor programs available. You may notice that she is almost the tallest of the three in the picture.
Family. You can tell when Rollins speaks that it is important. He wants his young men to grow in the same way a proud parent would. He takes time to make sure the understand the college experience and does not try to pigeon hole them into a particular area. He has wrestlers majoring in everything from mathematics to theatre. He has athletes in the University band. One of his team members has a freaking alligator! But the one thing they all had in common when I spoke to them was the word “family”.
Jimmy Rollins was a phenomenal wrestler in college and he is headed to the South New Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame in the same class as Jordan Burroughs here shortly. He helped bring in a top-five recruiting class in the national as an assistant at Iowa Lakes Community College. He is everything you would want in a friend if you are looking for that, or if you are looking for a class act in wrestling he is that in spades. That is not to say that he is not a fiery persona, he is from New Jersey. But he is tempered by the people he surrounds himself with like coach Smith, his “belt guy”. You may have wondered who the large man holding on to Rollins’ belt is at tournaments and duals, it is Dallas Smith and it is a full-time job. I can sit and talk about Rollins all day, but I also got the chance to get him on camera talking about the national championships, the qualifying process, his Lindenwood Open that has become a must schedule for teams all over the Midwest including quite a few Division I squads, and well, just the sport of wrestling. Check it out.
To truly experience Lindenwood and its wrestling program, you really need to visit the Hyland Center. I for one know I will be back this season for a dual at the very least. The Lindenwood Open is on my wishlist though and I know I will be watching it live either this year or next.
I want to thank coach Jimmy Rollins for opening up his door to me and for being such a great advocate for NCAA Division II wrestling.