Antonio Guerra was inducted into the NCAA Division II Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2019 for his accomplishments on the mat. As a competitor at Findlay, Guerra captured two NCAA Division II national titles, reached the national finals three times and earned All-America honors four times.
Guerra has since built a strong coaching resume. After a brief stint as a graduate assistant at Findley, Guerra spent five seasons as a high school wrestling coach at Central Catholic High School in Toledo, Ohio, where he guided the program to three top-three state finishes at the state tournament. He then became an assistant coach at Ashland University, where he coached the program's first national champion in over 10 years. Following his time at Ashland, Guerra became the head wrestling coach at Defiance College, which restarted its wrestling program after a 30-year hiatus. He joined the Tiffin coaching staff in 2021 as an assistant coach. After one season on staff, Guerra took over as the program's head coach prior to the 2022-23 season.
He led Tiffin College to an 11th-place finish at the 2023 NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships in his first season as the program's head wrestling coach. Guerra coached a pair of All-Americans, including a national champion.
MatBoss caught up with Guerra and talked to him about his first season leading the Tiffin wrestling program, what makes Zack Donathan a great competitor, expectations for the 2023-24 season and more.
You spent a year as an assistant at Tiffin before becoming the head coach before being named the program's head coach in May of 2022. What attracted you to Tiffin?
Guerra: I was college teammates with the previous head coach, Joey Simcoe. He was the best man in my wedding, so we've been great friends since our college days. We just have a great relationship. He called me November of the previous year. I knew that his assistant was going to be leaving and he asked if I would be interested in the spot, but more importantly, it was the Division II aspect. I wrestled in Division II. I'm in the Division II Hall of Fame. I really like what the Division II level has to offer. So for me to be able to get back, it was a great opportunity.
In your first season as head coach, you led the program to an 11th-place finish at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships. You had a couple All-Americans, including a national champion. How would you characterize this past season for the Tiffin wrestling program?
Guerra: Like any season, you have ups and downs. You start to get to crunch time towards the end of the year when things really start to become important, then you start to get guys to really buy in and get themselves to a level where they're going to be competitive nationally. I think that's what our guys did. I think overall, 11th-place finish and a couple All-Americans was a pretty successful season for us.
Zack Donathan became the third Tiffin wrestler ever to win a national championship. He was obviously a very credentialed high school wrestler and was a national finalist at the junior college level. What brought him to Tiffin?
Guerra: His brother Chris Donathan competed for the Dragons a few years ago with Joey Simcoe. That was where the relationship started. He's been around Tiffin. Last summer he was in town so that was when I had the opportunity to meet him. Once he and I started to build a little bit of a relationship, he started to trust in me that I could be a guy who could help him achieve some of his goals. I started piecing together the coaching staff when I got the job … and he seemed to be even more interested. I think that's what led him to us. He liked the things that we do within our program, like holding guys accountable and ensuring that they're doing all the right things. That's something he needed and has ultimately helped him succeed.
Zack went on an impressive run at the national tournament, reaching the finals with three first-period pins before beating Christian Small of Lake Erie in the finals. What makes Zack such a great competitor?
Guerra: His belief that he's the best guy every single time he steps out on the mat. He has that confidence because of his work ethic in the room and the training that he puts in. He believes in his coaching staff, the game plans we put together and he believes all the work that he's done up to that point is going to enable him to be successful when it counts. I think that's what separates him from others.
You were a two-time national champion and three-time NCAA finalist as a competitor. Compare the emotions of winning a national champion yourself and coaching a wrestler to a national championship. Are they similar?
Guerra: I'd say they are similar in some ways. As coaches, we put a lot of time and effort into game planning and getting these guys prepared and ready to be successful. So very similar as an athlete. You're sacrificing a lot. You're putting in a lot of hard work. And then to see the things that you've been working for come together and you're able to achieve them, I think, definitely has some similar emotions. But as any coach knows, you are kind of helpless out there at times. You're just wanting what's best for your guy and whatever happens, happens. The emotions are really hard to explain.
Casey Barnett was a Super Region champion at 157 pounds and round of 12 finisher at the national tournament. What he is capable of accomplishing over his next two seasons in your program?
Guerra: We thought Casey was a top four or top five guy in the nation. But you know how the national tournament goes. The draw is what it is. He faced the Central Oklahoma wrestler in the blood round. Both were top-four guys in my opinion. They just happened to wrestle in that round. I think he's capable of being a national champion the next three years. He's that talented. He had some injuries early on in the year. He just couldn't really get a lot of momentum going. We had to take some time off. He won the regional and didn't look bad at the national tournament, but not what we were expecting. He's capable of being a national champion.
Jake Noon started his career as a heavyweight. Moved down to 197 pounds for the second half of the season and won the Super Regional. What has it been like to see his progression as a wrestler?
Guerra: It's really been rewarding, honestly. When we came to me and we had that talk about him possibly going down. He said, 'Coach I'm all in. I'm going to do this.' When a guy makes that big of a sacrifice, you only hope that he can reap some of the benefits. He was the guy that definitely did. He probably lost 45 pounds to get down to that weight class and did it the right way. Ate right. Trained right. Slept right. When you see a guy make those many sacrifices and do all the right things, you can only hope that things go their way. In this case, I think winning the regional title was a tremendous accomplishment.
You got the program restarted at Defiance College after a 30-year hiatus. What was your experience like there? And what were the biggest challenges that came with restarting a new wrestling program?
Guerra: My time there was awesome. I enjoyed every moment of it. Enjoyed the people I worked with. It's a great institution. It's a small family. As far as the challenges, obviously, from a recruiting standpoint, when you're starting from scratch and you don't have anybody on the team, recruiting guys to come and be a part of a dream can be challenging. Obviously, at the Division II level, recruiting has its own challenges. But as far as the school, what they had to offer and the facilities, they were pretty good. I really enjoyed my time there. I hope they can continue what we started.
The NCAA announced some rule changes, including the 3-point takedown. What are your thoughts on the 3-point takedown?
Guerra: I have kind of mixed emotions. Obviously, it's going to put more points on the board. It should. That's the hopes and that's what fans want. Hopefully it will make it a little more fan friendly. But it will also separate or give you a little gap there for guys who are being a little more offensive and taking more risks. So for the most part I like the change. I'm interested to see what it's going to do from a stalling or defensive aspect, like when you go up like 6-2 to see if that offense is going to continue or if it's going to back off and not make it as exciting as we're hoping it will.
You were inducted into the NCAA Division II Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2019. What does that honor mean to you?
Guerra: There's no bigger honor in our little Division II world. It's a really small fraternity of individuals. That means the world because to me of all the sacrifices that I made to get myself there, as well as all the sacrifices my coaching staff and teammates all made. So it wasn't just an honor for me. It was for everybody else that helped me along the way. It definitely means the world to me.
Looking ahead to the 2023-24 season, you return a national champion and multiple NCAA qualifiers, what are your expectations for the program?
Guerra: We joke about this all the time, but on paper I think we're going to be better in every weight class. We were 11th, a half point away from 10th. Obviously, Zack had quite a few bonus points, which he is capable of doing again. But I think from top to bottom, we should be better than we were last year. We're hoping for a better finish at the national tournament. I think if things play out the way that we think they can, we can be a top-five team.