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March 16, 2010

Coach in training - Jesse Dong's career in wrestling is just getting started

By: Matt Kovatch

Jesse Dong

One isn’t likely to walk into Rector Field House and see director of track and field Dave Cianelli hopping over hurdles in a race against Queen Harrison.

Likewise, the chances are slim that Frank Beamer is on the football field rushing the passer side-by-side with Jason Worilds.

And odds are head swimming coach Ned Skinner isn’t leaping off the 3-meter diving board with Mikey McDonald.

But in the wrestling room in the back gym of Cassell Coliseum, not many practices go by without one member of the coaching staff mixing it up on the mat with the student-athletes.

See, Harrison can always work to shave another fraction of a second off of her best time, Worilds can always be double-teamed by two offensive linemen, and McDonald is always looking for a way to earn more points from the judges.

But when you’re arguably the best wrestler on the team, as Virginia Tech sophomore Jesse Dong has proven to be this year, there’s only one way to improve, and that’s to fight someone better. For many teams around the country, that someone is usually one of the coaches.

Jesse Dong, a 157-pounder, has upset some of the nation’s top wrestlers.

“It’s pretty common in our sport for coaches to wrestle,” said Tony Robie, Tech’s associate head coach and a former NCAA runner-up during his collegiate career. “It’s pretty hands-on and something you see in a lot of programs. I probably wrestle at least two days a week.”

More often than not, Robie is going against Dong, who has thrived this season at the 157-pound slot for the No. 14 Hokies. And more often than not, Dong comes away unsuccessful.

“Jesse is one of the few guys on our team who will grab [assistant] Coach [Nate] Yetzer or Coach Robie on a daily basis and wrestle with them,” head coach Kevin Dresser said. “They are bigger, stronger and more experienced, and he probably hasn’t gotten the better of them once in two years during a live workout. But he’s pretty close. He’s closing the gap. He wants to beat everybody in the room.”

So why does Dong keep going back for more despite the continuous losses?

“I feel like Coach Robie is one of the biggest reasons why I’m having success this year,” Dong said. “He has really focused on me and put in the time with me. He’s been the main guy who’s really helped to build my technique. When I’m drilling with him, I feel perfect and on my game. I like to go with him because he’s obviously a great competitor and an amazing wrestler. It’s good for me to get beat up sometimes and it’s good for me to get humbled.”

That’s about the only way Dong has been humbled this year, as he entered the postseason with a 27-2 record, ranked third in the country by W.I.N. Magazine, fourth by Amateur Wrestling News and fifth by InterMat. He’s racked up many big wins along the way, including upsets over No. 2 Cyler Sanderson of Penn State and No. 3 Thomas Scotton of North Carolina. But he attributes much of his success to those bouts with the coaching staff.

“It’s really important to go out there and wrestle these guys [Yetzer and Robie] because they know how to win and they know what it’s like,” Dong said excitedly, almost as if he were giving himself a pep talk. “It’s not like some of the guys you might see in many college wrestling rooms, where you take them down four or five times and they quit. I’m going to try to take down Coach Robie as many times as I can, and even if I get a lucky takedown, there’s no way he’s going to let me have another one. It’s good for me to get taken down and to have to fight off my base, get back up and then get taken down again. It’s really good adversity for me.”

Though Dong relishes the challenge of wrestling someone better than him, he’s usually the one doling out the adversity. That’s because of his unorthodox style, a style that was probably developed because he tried so many different sports as a child before finally settling on wrestling rather late in the game, during middle school.

“I played mostly every sport there is other than hockey,” Dong remembered. “I played everything from tennis to gymnastics, baseball to soccer, and basketball to football. Any sport you can think of, my parents put me in, just to see what I liked and what I could excel at.”

Dong quickly excelled at wrestling, fooling opponents with, as Dresser puts it, his funky style.

“Jesse rolls around a lot and he never stops moving,” Dresser said. “He’s got a combination of a really flamboyant style, but yet, he’s got good basics. He can get to the leg and take a guy down. He can get away from everybody. He’s also really good in the top position. He’s got a lot of weapons when he steps out there, so he’s hard to predict.”

No matter what Dong throws at his opponent wrestling-wise, one thing both Dresser and Robie make sure to point out is what they feel is his most defining characteristic – his competitive nature.

“Jesse’s desire to win is the highest on our team right now,” Dresser said. “He wants to win all the time and he thinks he can beat anybody. He’s very much like Muhammad Ali in that he’s not afraid to tell you that he’s the best. It’s not that he doesn’t respect his opponent, but he’s the first one to say that he’s going to go out and pin his guy.”

“More than anything, the reason Jesse is good is because he’s a competitor,” Robie agreed. “He doesn’t care who he’s wrestling, if it’s me or Yetzer or somebody whom he’s not favored to beat. He goes out there with the attitude that he’s going to win. He doesn’t take a back seat to anybody. If you’re going to beat him, he’s going to make you earn it, and that’s ultimately why he’s gotten so good because he brings that attitude to practice and training every day.”

Another thing he brings to practice is a unique passion for the sport that is unmatched by most student-athletes his age. Fueled by a tremendously supportive family who routinely makes the six-hour drive to Blacksburg from Ohio for his matches, Dong possesses a vast knowledge of the sport that has earned him a nickname among his teammates as “The Walking Wrestling Encyclopedia.” He can reportedly cite any score of any match, as well as the credentials for many wrestlers – high school or college – from all over the country. According to Dresser, anytime anybody on the team needs information about wrestling, they go to Dong because he visits nearly every wrestling Web site he can find on a daily basis.

They also go to Dong whenever they need a pat on the back or a word of motivation because he has quickly taken on the role of team leader not even two years into his Virginia Tech tenure.

“We have a young team, but Jesse has emerged as the leader,” Dresser said. “To do that as a true sophomore is a really unique ability.”

But that should come as no surprise once Dong reveals his aspirations for his post-wrestling days – he wants to be a coach.

“Wrestling is the one thing that I know that I am completely passionate about,” Dong said in his fast-paced tone. “Wrestling is really important to me. It’s a big thing. I love watching it, I love reading about it and I love doing it. I’m really serious about coaching.”

Dong’s current mentors wasted no time backing up those words.

“Obviously, part of being a coach is that you’ve got to have good people skills, which Jesse does,” Robie said. “He’s got the work ethic and I think within the next couple of years, he’s going to have the wrestling accomplishments that go along with that. I think if Jesse chooses to go that route, he’s going to have a very successful career in coaching wrestling. He brings a lot to the table.”

What does Dresser think about Dong’s prospects of following in his footsteps?

“When we get to that point – he’s still got some time left – but I can promise you that if he’s the same guy in three years that he is right now, he’s a guy I’d hire in a heartbeat,” Dresser said. “He’s infectious. He’s a guy whom you want your young kids to be around when it comes to wrestling. He’s that special. He’s the kind of guy we want to keep in Blacksburg for as long as we can keep him here.”

And who knows? Unless Dong changes his mind – and with his kind of enthusiasm, that seems unlikely – it won’t be long before the roles are reversed and he is the wise and experienced coach giving some eager young sophomore a whupping on the practice mat.

Getting to know … 157-pounder Jesse Dong

Born: 5/3/90 in Westerville, Ohio

Hometown/High School: Westerville, Ohio/Westerville North

Family: Parents Candice and Jimmy, brother Ryan

Ethnicity: I’m 50 percent Chinese. My dad’s parents came over from China a couple of years before they had him. It’s kind of nice because everyone knows who I am. You don’t see many Asian wrestlers out there.

Roommates: Teammates Schuyler Swanton and Matt Rosen

Last movie you went to see: Valentine’s Day

Favorite pump-up music: I actually lost my iPod, so I’ve been listening to either Jarrod Garnett’s or Chris Penny’s iPods. I’ve been listening to DMX before every match.

Favorite post-match food: BOOST energy drinks. I crave them all week and they’re really good for you. Food-wise, I just like to eat everything.

Superstitions: I’m really OCD about my things. I always have to wear the same things. I always wear two pairs of socks and I always wear the same kneepads. It’s more of a routine than a superstition.

Car you drive: BMW 325 XI.

Major: Business

Toughest course: ACIS 2116: Accounting

Favorite sport other than wrestling: The NBA. I’ve always been a LeBron James fan.

Tough injuries you’ve dealt with: Last year, I slightly tore the LCL in my right knee two weeks before the ACC tournament. This year, I messed up my ribs pretty bad and I was getting shots before every match for three weeks in a row. I’m really afraid of needles, so that wasn’t fun at all.