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December 16, 2011

Pinning Down Success

By: Marc Mullen

Born in Germany and raised in Georgia, Pete Yates has made a name for himself as a wrestler in Blacksburg

One hundred, sixty-one wins and a loss. Again, 161-1. That was the record of Pete Yates after four years of high school wrestling.

Yates’ only loss came during his sophomore season was to a senior. That match in the state’s 2006 final was dubbed one of the best state finals matches of all time, and the senior capped off his own four-year stellar high school career with his fourth state title.

Yates’ overall mark was an incredible feat, but there was just one drawback – his location. The young man, now a junior on the Virginia Tech wrestling squad, admits that his state isn’t a hotbed for wrestling protégés.

“I wasn’t recruited all that heavily even though I was a three-time state champ in Georgia,” Yates said. “But Georgia is really not known for wrestling at all. It’s getting a lot better, but winning three state titles in the state is not a big deal, and it doesn’t really mean anything.”

A quick glance at the rosters of the top teams in the nation reinforces Yates’ statement. Most schools heavily recruit in their own state, so Iowa, Oklahoma, Ohio and Pennsylvania natives are littered throughout the rosters of the nation’s elite wrestling teams.

In fact, of the top 15 ranked teams in the country entering December, just three of them have a student-athlete from the Peach state. Cornell has a freshman, Missouri a senior and the Hokies have Yates.

So, faced with a stigma such as this, Yates realized that, to get noticed, he had to beat those wrestlers on their own turf.

The “Beast of the East” wrestling tournament is held annually in Newark, N.J. and is a huge draw among the Northeast’s best. In 2007, Yates dispatched all five of his opponents on his way to winning the 145-pound title. He pinned Joey Napoli from Boiling Springs, Pa., in three minutes in the semifinals and then earned a 4-1 decision in the finals over Walter Peppelman from Harrisburg, Pa.

“During my senior year, I went up to the Beast of the East tournament, which is a pretty recognized national tournament,” Yates said. “I won it, and then I started really getting noticed, but I had already signed by then.”

Ironically, both of those men – Napoli now at Lehigh and Peppelman at Harvard – were in Philadelphia this past March, wrestling in the 2011 NCAA Championships along with Yates. It was the second time he had qualified for the main event, but just the first time he had competed.

“My freshman year, I sprained my knee in the ACC tournament and still made it to the national tournament, but I was unable to wrestle at nationals,” Yates said. “So I made it there, but I had to forfeit when I was there because I was unable to compete.

“Last year, I made it to nationals again. So that was my first time wrestling on the national stage. It was exciting, but I’m really disappointed with how I finished up last year. I guess you got to start somewhere.”

As for Yates, his ultimate start and path to the NCAAs was an unorthodox one.

He was born in September of 1989 in Germany, the son of a forensic biologist for the military and a Frau from the country. He grew up in Frankfort, lived there until he was 6, and of course, was introduced to Europe’s game.

“My dad was in the military, and when he went over there [Germany], he met my mom, married her over there, and I was born there,” Yates said. “I actually played a lot of soccer growing up, here too, until I was in middle school, when I decided to really focus on wrestling.

“Where my dad worked, the company moved to Atlanta, and they closed down the branch in Germany. So we moved to America, and that’s when I first got started into wrestling.”

He doesn’t remember too much about his childhood, but visits his grandparents and five aunts about every two years. He does, though, remember learning both German and English as a toddler.

“German was actually my first language that I grew up speaking,” he said. “My dad spoke mostly English with me, so I kind of learned both at the same time. I am still fluent in German, but obviously not as well as English. I am actually minoring in German here at Tech, so that helps out a little bit.”

Over those first few years in the United States, Yates started on his journey that would lead him to Blacksburg. He credits his father, who is also Peter, for introducing him to wrestling, helping him to continue with it and giving him the mentality to endure it.

“My dad wrestled in high school way back,” Yates said. “He really didn’t have much training, but he had the right mentality of hard work and achieving your goals. He really implemented that in my mind at a young age and kept me on the right path all the way up until now.”

The older Peter is originally from western Pennsylvania, less than an hour’s drive northeast of Pittsburgh, and his roots are still in a region that is known for its wrestling.

Ryan Yates, the younger Peter’s cousin, wrestled for Burrell High School, compiled a 116-30 record in four years and finished second as a junior and fifth as a senior in the PIAA state class AA championships. He wrestled at Edinboro, earning a bid to the 2002 NCAA Championships as a redshirt freshman and was ranked 10th in the country at one point before injuries sidelined his collegiate career.

“Ryan actually wrestled with Coach Nate Yetzer [now on Tech’s staff],” Yates said. “They were actually on the same team together at Edinboro.”

Around this time, Yates began to seek out more help in the wrestling world. He would commute from his home in Conyers, a suburb on the southeast side of Atlanta, to Smyrna, on the northwest side of the city – about an hour’s drive – to train at The Wrestling Center.

“I was in a middle school wrestling program, which was sixth through eighth grade, and we just wrestled against other middle school teams,” Yates said. “But it really wasn’t that good for competition. Most of my learning came from a club called TWC, which is run by Arturo Holmes.

“He’s a pretty big name in wrestling and is a pretty respected technician. I would drive up there, and he taught me basically everything that I know today. It was quite a commute, an hour there and an hour back, and I tried to do that two or three times a week. Every Sunday, we were up there, and then Tuesday and Thursday, we’d try to go up there as well.”

The instruction Yates received at TWC was so valuable to him. He even worked out a deal to continue practicing there even when he moved on to the high school team.

“Once I entered high school, that was a challenge. I didn’t really have any good drill partners at my high school. It was not advanced at all,” he said. “So I arranged with my coach that it was okay for me to go up there and work at the club with a little better competition.

“And I still go up there when I go back home. I still go there today. [Holmes] knows what he’s doing, and he still helps me out.”

One can’t argue the results, when considering his high school career. But what of that one loss?

Yates lost to Ringgold’s Garrison Goins. The match described by the Walker County Messenger in May of 2006 was, “… Goins’ fourth state title was perhaps the most exciting. He hammered out a last-second victory over Salem High super sophomore Peter Yates, 4-2, in front of more than 10,000 spectators at the Gwinnett Arena.”

Reflecting, Yates was a little appreciative of the loss.

“I think it was really good to have a loss there because it really pushed me that whole summer, and my junior year is when I really made a big improvement in my wrestling career,” he said.

“I picked up my training, and in my junior and senior year, I think I tech-ed [technical fall] kids in the finals. That’s really when I improved my wrestling and knew that it was what I wanted to do in college.”

In his first season as a Hokie, he certainly did wrestle. He compiled a 31-8 mark as a true freshman – one of four in Tech’s starting lineup that season – going 17-0 in dual meets, and he earned that wild card spot in the NCAAs.

“Our team was so young when I came in – me, Jesse (Dong), Jarrod (Garnett), we were so young and we were forced into that starting lineup right away,” Yates said. “I think we had a great environment and a great mentality, all of us.

“Just because we were freshmen doesn’t mean anything. We were still going to go out there to win matches. And I think we had a lot of faith in our coaches and in our training. I don’t think it [their success] was a surprise to any of us.”

Only five wrestlers at Tech have ever reached the 100-win plateau. Yates, and the two men mentioned, have all earned at least 80 wins so far and are easily on their way to joining that club.

Only seven men have earned All-America honors at Tech, an accomplishment Yates has his eyes set on for this season – though that’s not his only goal.

“I just have faith in my skills, and I think that if I just keep getting better every day and keep working hard, I’ll have a good tournament at the end of the year and I’ll be right there,” he said. “I think that just being an All-American is underachieving for myself. I think I can be a national champion, and that just motivates me to work harder.”