By Sports editor Brian Hoffman
It’s hard enough to start a brand new program at an NCAA institution, but when you’re dealing with the coronavirus pandemic as well it adds an extra degree of difficulty. However, that’s not stopping Nate Yetzer from carrying on in his new position as head wrestling coach at Roanoke College.
Roanoke announced that the college would be adding wrestling in January of this year, and Yetzer was hired in March, right after folks started realizing this pandemic was going to be serious. RC athletic director Scott Allison announced the Maroons would first field a team for the 2021-22 season, joining Emory & Henry, Shenandoah, Washington & Lee and Ferrum as schools in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference to offer the sport.
The Maroons hired Yetzer away from Ferrum, where he built the Panthers into a solid Division III contender. In eight years with Ferrum Nate sent 13 wrestlers to the NCAA Division III national championships, including four who earned All-American honors. His 2017 team won the NCAA East Regional and Zach Beckner finished second in the nation, becoming the first Ferrum athlete to compete as an NCAA Finalist in any sport.
Yet, when Roanoke came calling it wasn’t a hard decision for Yetzer to leave Franklin County.
“It’s a special place,” said Yetzer of RC. “The facilities are really special, they’re as good as a lot of Division I schools. And it checks all the boxes. It has great academics, excellent athletics and a good social life. It’s an easy sell. It’s a little more expensive than Ferrum but I feel like it’s a much better value.”
At Ferrum Nate had a lot of kids from North Carolina, and he figures to continue to recruit that area. When he left the team he had 45 wrestlers in black and gold singlets. At Roanoke his goal is to have 28 on the team by his second or third year.
There are 10 weight classes in NCAA Division III wrestling and right now Yetzer has three wrestlers currently in school and commitments from six others planning to come from as far away as Los Angeles, CA, Pittsburgh, PA and Syracuse, NY. Wrestlers currently in school include Ryan Foutz from Patrick Henry, Jackson Shumate from Carroll County and Chandler Jordan from North Carolina. Shumate liked RC’s academics and the idea of being on Yetzer’s staff to start a program.
“Roanoke has great academics, and that was the big thing,” he said. “I had heard of coach Yetzer for years and after taking a visit I decided this is where I wanted to be.”
Foutz was deciding between Roanoke and VMI before Yetzer was hired.
“I’d been going to coach Yetzer’s camps for years and when I saw he was coming to Roanoke the decision was easy,” said Foutz. “It’s close to home and Brice VanDenberg, who was an assistant at PH, is one of his assistants.”
Yetzer has three assistant coaches, including Christiansburg product Jacob Bonds who was with him at Ferrum. VanDenberg runs camps for Nate and Blake Rosenbaum is the all-time wins and pins leader at Ferrum. He comes from Abingdon.
The jump from high school to college wrestling is a pretty big step, according to Yetzer.
“People don’t understand how good Division III wrestling is,” he said. “Five of the 10 national champions last year were Division I transfers. There’s a lot of good kids and they pick Division III for a variety of reasons. Some of it is due to academics, some of them want to be close to home and others don’t like the pressure of going Division I. There are a lot of good kids in Division III.”
The Roanoke staff has been running training sessions for kids of all ages in the enclosed area behind the Salem Civic Center through the summer and into the fall. Kids of all skill levels meet late in the afternoon on Monday, Wednesday and Friday to hone their craft. Usually between 20 and 30 wrestlers show up, each having their temperature taken when they arrive.
“We have a lot of protocols, and everyone has to sign a waiver,” said Yetzer. “The pandemic makes it a little tougher to conduct a camp, but on the other hand kids are starving for something to do.”
Yetzer’s four boys, all age 10 and under, are usually in attendance as the competition is for elementary through college age wrestlers, pairing off according to age, weight and ability for practice. Wrestlers from all over the Roanoke Valley have been coming to the sessions, preparing for what they hope will be a winter season that is scheduled to begin with practice on December 14 and matches beginning December 28 under the current Virginia High School League schedule.
While Roanoke is not yet scheduled to compete this winter, Yetzer has plenty of work to do, hopefully recruiting at high school matches. The Maroons don’t even have mats yet but Nate will get to design them and he’s talked about an octagon design that has become popular.
Yetzer is well-known in the wrestling world. Prior to coaching at Ferrum he was an assistant under legendary coach Kevin Dresser for six years at Virginia Tech. Dresser built perennial state champions in high school, first at Grundy and then Christiansburg, before moving on to Tech. He is now head coach at Iowa State University. At Tech Yetzer assisted with recruitment and visitations of potential Virginia Tech student-athletes, fundraising activities, travel coordination and monitoring academic progress of student-athletes.
As an undergraduate Yetzer wrestled for NCAA Division I Edinboro University from 2001-05. He won Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference titles in 2004 and 2005, and earned the Eastern Wrestling League title in 2004. Yetzer was a four-time NCAA Division I Tournament qualifier, and capped his 2004 season with an All-American finish when he placed 8th in the 174-pound weight class.
A native of Ohio, Yetzer was an Ohio High School Athletic Association state finalist in 1999 and 2000, winning a state title in 2000 while competing for Madison High School. He went on to a National High School Coaches Association (NHCAA) national runner-up finish in 2000, and earned five Freestyle and Greco-Roman All-America finishes.
Anyone interested in participating in the practice sessions at the Salem Civic Center can show up on Monday, Wednesday or Friday, or contact coach Yetzer through the Roanoke College website. The high school wrestlers go from 5:30 pm to 7 pm following a session for the elementary school kids. There is a cost but it’s very reasonable for some excellent instruction.