NEWBERRY — When Jason Valek landed in Denver this week, he got behind the wheel of a 15-passenger van to transport his Newberry College wrestling team two hours south on I-25 to Pueblo, Colo.
Along the way, Valek stopped at a grocery store to stock up on fruit and snacks for this weekend’s NCAA Division II tournament. Upon arrival at Colorado State University-Pueblo, Valek began sorting through and distributing T-shirts to the Newberry fans who made the trip.
Valek does it all for the Newberry program. That is the way it works when you are both the program’s architect and director. These days, Valek is doing it as well as any coach in the country. Newberry is ranked No. 2 in the country and is in contention to capture the school’s first national championship in any sport.
The ascent to elite status has taken seven years and includes five consecutive Super Region championships and a second-place national finish in 2008-09. The program was built by a coach who wrestled one season in college as a walk-on and had two years of high school coaching experience.
So, while the visitor to the Newberry practice facility — a converted grocery store near the Newberry Opera House downtown that the athletics department rents for $800 a month — might not see much, Valek sees the result of years of hard work in assembling talent and teaching the sport.
Valek, a 1998 Clemson graduate, eventually migrated to Newberry High, where he coached for two seasons. One of his wrestlers — a two-time state champion — was Aaron Carter, the son of the Newberry College athletics director at the time, Andy Carter.
During a high school tournament in Anderson, the AD approached Valek afterward at a restaurant. Carter mentioned he was starting a wrestling program at Newberry College and he wanted Valek as his coach.
“Do I have to teach?” Valek recalls asking Carter.
“No,” Carter responded.
“Then, I’m in.”
Newberry competed as a club team that first season of 2004-05, then went 6-11 in dual matches the following season, losing to the likes of Division I opponents The Citadel, N.C. State and Appalachian State.
At the outset, Valek conducted a mass recruiting effort through mailings and emails. His hope was to find anyone who would bite and sign on with a program most prospects could not locate on a map.
The first breakthrough recruit was Matt Oliver out of Toms River, N.J. Valek and Oliver hit it off on recruiting visits before Oliver began to attract attention from Division I programs when he won a state title his senior year. Despite overtures from the likes of Michigan and Virginia Tech, Oliver stuck with his commitment to Newberry.
“He pushed us over,” Valek said of Oliver, who has won 106 dual matches in his four years at Newberry and qualified for his fourth national tournament. “He legitimized the program.”
A year later, Andrew Young, a three-time state champion from Summerville, proved Newberry’s signature instate signee. Now Newberry can hold its own in recruiting with the other instate programs — The Citadel, Anderson, Limestone and Spartanburg Methodist.
Success on the national level has helped Valek spread the Newberry name in wrestling hotbeds from Pennsylvania to Iowa to Colorado. His regular-season roster featured wrestlers from 14 states.
“There’s a lot more high school wrestlers than there are college programs,” Valek said. “They know where we are now. When I walk into a gas station in Johnstown, Pa., they call me names. ... It’s a lot of fun.”
The fun is in the winning, and with that fun comes increasingly high expectations. Valek recalled a recent conversation he had with the Mercyhurst (Ohio) College coach.
“It must be fun where you are,” Valek recalled Mercyhurst coach Mike Wehler saying.
“It’s miserable,” Valek responded.
“What do you mean?”
“Now everyone expects us to win super regionals and compete for national championships. It’s miserable, but you wouldn’t want it any other way.”
No matter what happens this weekend in Colorado, Valek will return next week to Newberry in search of more wrestlers for his program. There will be summer camps for youth wrestlers from throughout South Carolina.
Another fund-raising effort is needed to provide padding to the walls at the practice facility and perhaps a couple of televisions and cameras that could be mounted and used to videotape practices.
It is all part of building a national powerhouse.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)