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 miss 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!
The drive up to the Maryville University campus is unlike the other three local Universities. A winding path takes you up a hill that is lined with trees and rock formations. Nestled at the top is a school that holds more than 6,000 students and has been established since 1872. Moved from St Louis to the suburb of Town and Country in 1961, it is a private institution still associated with the Society of the Sacred Heart. With tuition that approaches $30,000 a year, there is a significant emphasis on academics at the institution. It also sponsors 20 varsity sports and has a Quidditch club team. If I had known that when I was looking at schools years ago, I would have been knocking down their doors.
The university created a wrestling team in 2011, with the hiring of the Hall of Fame coach Mike Denney, after the fiasco at that Nebraska school that cut their wrestling team after they won their third straight national title. Denney was able to bring much of his team with him along with the equipment that UNO attempted to sell to local high schools. Wrestling is a community and when we see an injustice, you can be sure that we will do what we can to help. Local schools refused to bid and Maryville was able to pick up equipment for a steal and also stick it to the school that cast them out.
Maryville was a great fit for a head coach who strives for academic excellence and personal growth and accountability in his athletes. He also relished the chance to build a program from the ground up. Denney has been very successful entering his ninth season in the wrestling room that he repurposed from office space. It is incredible hearing how he built the “Dojo” using available space, a cement saw, and elbow grease. They built a shower, a laundry room, took over a bathroom, found a super cool staircase that leads to a secret room that they use for equipment, and have an entryway that is nothing short of a shrine to wrestling history.
I have never walked into a wrestling room anything like entering the Dojo. You are treated to a sacred space that holds history and offers a glimpse of your future through the doors into the wrestling room. You also get the sense that you are entering a place for martial arts. Wrestling to the Maryville Saints is more than just wrestling, it is a blending of mind, soul, and passion. Or at least that is how it is described. Once you’re actually in the Dojo, you can see more history everywhere. Team accomplishments, individual accomplishments, the brands from every athlete on each team, academic All-Americans, the history is everywhere you look. The walls are adorned with curtains, there is a table set up for study work, if athletes want to be in the room at any point during the day, and a do it yourself weight room are all stuffed into a room that seems too small to build the teams that Maryville can produce. It can be overwhelming at first, but as you learn the point behind each piece, you see the brilliance of it.
It was a pleasure speaking with head coach Mike Denney about his coaching philosophy, the athletes he has coached, the incredible Kaufman-Brand/Bayly Open, and being from the Midwest. One of my favorite little notes, he will not refer to UNO by name, it is “the other school.” I love it!
Sitting on a couch that was in his office at the “other school” and listening to stories and asking questions that had more to do with life than wrestling I could not help but reflect that I was sitting where people like Les Sigman, Steve Costanzo, George Ivanov, and the current wrestling coach of my alma mater Dan Lovell, was pretty cool too. After he hooked me up with some pretty sweet swag, we decided to make the walk across campus to talk shop in his office.
The thing I probably remember most, and that stood out the most to me from this entire visit was something that happened on our walk to his office. On the sidewalk there was a coffee shop receipt marring the otherwise clean sidewalk, I watched a man in his 70s stop and pick it up. It was not an easy task, you can tell that coach Denney’s hands are stiff and the paper was stuck to the ground, but he was not going to let that piece of trash sit on his campus. I wondered how many students and other faculty members had walked past and just overlooked it. Not coach Denney, his pride for Maryville is more than just for wrestling.
Maryville has a team that could finish in the top five at the national tournament this season. They return five ranked wrestlers, two All-Americans, and five total national qualifiers. The Saints are going to push to be one of the best teams in the country this season. I am sure that no one ever sleeps on a Mike Denney coached team, but make sure you stay tuned in this season..