Danny Irwin guided West Liberty's wrestling program to a fourth-place finish at the 2021 NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships. The Hilltoppers qualified six wrestlers to the NCAAs and finished with four All-Americans, including a pair of national champions.
Irwin was named the Mountain East Conference All-Sports Coach of the Year, NCAA Division II Super Region 3 Wrestling Coach of the Year and was a finalist for the 2021 NCAA Division II Wrestling Coach of the Year.
Prior to taking over as head coach at West Liberty, Irwin served as the head wrestling coach at Wheeling University, where he led the program to a national runner-up finish in 2019.
MatBoss caught up with Irwin and talked to him about this past season, Brian Anderson, Bobby Douglas and what it's going to take to win a national championship in 2022.
Last season you won a Super Regional title and finished fourth at the national tournament in only your second season at West Liberty. Did you think that kind of success would come so soon at West Liberty?
Irwin: I did. It was a big part of selecting West Liberty as my next step after being head coach at Wheeling Jesuit. I had a very strong foundation when I came here. I felt like that foundation was in place at West Liberty too. It was just a matter of continuing to get the right people on board, putting the work in each day and not worrying about the postseason. Just making sure we were going to be ready for it.
Cole Laya came through to win his first national championship at 125 pounds. Really had a dominant finals performance, winning 11-2. How gratifying was it to see him get that national title after the previous NCAA tournament was canceled and he was in a position to contend for that title?
Irwin: It was really gratifying. Cole was the first recruit to commit to me when I made the move out to the Ohio Valley. He made the decision to follow me from Wheeling Jesuit to West Liberty. The history there was huge, with him being the first recruit. And then him sticking with me and choosing me when he could have chosen a number of other schools when that recruitment process opened back up. To see him have the performance he did was just special, not only for our coaching staff, but his family and the state of West Virginia. Cole is somebody who had a very successful high school career. Now he's having just as spectacular of a college career, finishing third as a true freshman, then being named an All-American to now being a national champion.
Tyler Warner won his second national title last year. What makes him such a great competitor?
Irwin: He is fierce and probably the stingiest, stubbornest guy I've maybe ever come across. He doesn't like to surrender points. It's tough to score on him. At the national tournament he really opened up. It's the most points he's ever scored. Obviously, those bonus points proved to be valuable for the team at the national tournament.
Connor Craig, a 2019 national champion, reached the national finals before losing a close 3-2 match to Heath Gray of Central Oklahoma. What was the takeaway for him coming up short?
Irwin: He's a hungry individual. He was excited for that match. I think everybody that follows Division II wrestling was really excited for that match, including our team and Connor Craig. It just made him hungry. He knows what he wants to do. He wants to climb to the top of that podium again. We know he's going to have some very tough opponents in his pathway, but he's just focused on getting better. We felt like we didn't allow enough action to be created in that match for him to really capitalize and score points. I think that's going to be something that's going to be very evident when he opens up the year here in November and as the season progresses. He's going to look to go out, create action and score points. Not leave the match to a one position difference.
You had nine Scholar All-Americans. How much pride do you take in that?
Irwin: A tremendous amount of pride. For most guys it's only talked about a couple of times during the year. But with our structure, they can focus on class when it's time to be in class and focus on practice when it's time to be in practice. They understand the marks they need to hit. With nine guys doing it, it becomes that much more real. The year before we had three, but now with nine its set a program record. That's now the standard. We want to be above that now and guys are hungry to do that. I'm excited to see what this year has for us on the academic side. We've raised our cumulative GPA a lot from the time that I arrived. I expect to continue to see that rise even more with what we already have in our program and the guys that are looking to join our program.
You coached with Brian Anderson at Wabash College. What did you take from him into your coaching?
Irwin: He is a very detail-oriented person and someone that is relentless. His work ethic is unmatched. So it's something that really set the tone for me, how I wanted to work and how I wanted to focus in on the details. I think he is very much a CEO-driven coach. I'm very appreciative that I got to learn that side of things. It wasn't just about practice. It was about building a program. What he has accomplished at Wabash is nothing short of amazing. I think the majority of people don't realize the demands much like an Ivy League school in Division I that from the recruiting standpoint and the academic standpoint and then being able to compete at a high level again. It's nothing short of spectacular. I think he's one of the most underappreciated coaches in wrestling in any division, with what he's done there and the career he's had. Last year they were ranked No. 1 going into the year and weren't allowed to compete at the NWCA national tournament. They have a hungry group of guys. I think you're going to have a spectacular year.
Legendary wrestler and coach Bobby Douglas competed at West Liberty before transferring to Oklahoma State. He's obviously someone who made a huge impact on the sport of wrestling. First Black wrestler to compete at the Olympics for the United States. Is his impact on wrestling still felt and understood in your program?
Irwin: Yeah. We have his picture up in our office. We also have his national championship banner up in our room. He's somebody that gets talked about a bunch. I would say he's a hidden gem in the area. When people come to West Liberty and come to the area they don't realize this is where Bobby Douglas grew up. His story is remarkable. There are a lot of great pieces out there on his upbringing and what led him to wrestling and obviously the impact he's had as a coach over the years. It's one of the all-time great stories. I think a lot of our guys draw inspiration from him. Here's a guy from the Ohio Valley that has made a name for himself not only as an athlete but as a coach. He is an icon in the sport. He has shown that it can be done here. You just have to put the work in and follow the plan.
What are your thoughts on the current state of NCAA wrestling? Do you think it's in a good place?
Irwin: Yeah, I think it's in a really good place. Some of the tweaks and rule changes have just created more action. Coaches across the country are dialing in more and marketing their programs and wrestlers. We've seen a great increase in fan attendance here at West Liberty and different duals that we go to throughout the course of the year. I think we're in a very healthy place. Women's wrestling continues to pick up steam and become more mainstream across the culture.
How are the early season workouts going? Any takeaways?
Irwin: Our team's looking good. Everybody's excited at this time of the year. They're very intrigued by what they're doing day in and day out and where they want to take their wrestling. I would say one of the takeaways is we've been a little bit more calculated and slower with some things that we've done compared to past years. We had a conference-only schedule last year. We still peaked and competed at an extremely high level. Now that we get to wrestle a full season, and we don't need a hundred matches or forty matches during the season. We need to look at our weigh-ins and look at where we want to be at different parts of the year, which is going to translate to having another postseason like we had last year. I think we're just going to have more guys at the party in St. Louis in March.
You obviously have a very competitive wrestling room. How do you determine your lineup? Do you do wrestle-offs? Or is determined through early season competition?
Irwin: We have some wrestle-offs at the end of October. We have a big dual right out of the gates. We wrestle the University of Pitt-Johnstown. It's a perennial top-10 team and legendary Coach Pecora, who's a West Liberty graduate and qualified for the national tournament here. There's just a lot of history and connections between the two programs because of that. If we don't win, a lot of West Liberty alums want to see Coach Pecora win, which is awesome. That's going to be a really, really big dual for us. Our lineup will start getting settled later in November when we wrestle in the Findlay Open. Everybody will be in the same bracket and we'll see how guys do, which will really set our lineup for when we come back from Thanksgiving. We head down to South Carolina, to UNC Pembroke and then take on the defending national champs in St. Cloud, along with two other programs down there.
Obviously you finished fourth in the nation. What's it going to take to beat programs like St. Cloud State and Nebraska Kearney and finish on top at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships?
Irwin: It takes forty guys. It takes our six coaches. It takes our training staff. It takes all those people. Ultimately, that many people leads to putting out our 10 best guys. Last year was the 10 strongest guys and 10 best performances I've ever had out of a group of men at the national qualifier. We just missed having a couple more guys there that I think would have made a big difference. But you have to win matches. I think it's going to take 10 this year, just like what St. Cloud and Kearney has done. A couple years ago when my team was national runner-ups we had six qualifiers and six All-Americans. I think we lost by seven, eight points. That's an All-American, if not two All-Americans to cover that gap. So having 10 guys there is something that's on a coach's mind. I think our guys understand that from a competitive standpoint. We can't rely on Tyler Warner, Connor Craig and Cole Laya. Those three guys aren't going to win us a national team title. It's going to take everyone to do it. I think that's been very evident in how ferocious our room has been in the live wrestling that we've done to this point. We're competitive now and we're going to continue to get more competitive as the year goes on. We plan to put 10 in St. Louis in March of 2022.