The Stevens Institute of Technology wrestling program has won every conference championship since Joe Favia took over as head coach in 2014. Favia has compiled a dual meet record of 95-41 over the past eight seasons and finished in the top 12 at every contested Division III national championship since 2016.
MatBoss recently caught up with Favia and talked to him about this past season, which included a fifth-place finish at the NCAA Division III Championships and crowning his first individual national champion, as well as his coaching staff, program expectations and more.
Brett Kaliner became the program's first five-time All-American and the first-ever national champion in wrestling. What was that moment like for you as a coach, seeing him win the national championship? And what did it do for your program?
Favia: It validated what we're capable of doing. Brett was our first national champion, but we've walked into the national tournament multiple times over the course of the last 10 years with guys ranked No. 1 in the country, but just never was able to get somebody to actually win a national title. Brett was a national finalist his freshman year on campus. So that wasn't our first time having somebody in the finals. But to actually have him win that title and claim the national championship as an individual showed that it's possible. I think that people within our program knew it was possible because we had been so close but now we have the hardware to validate it.
As a program, we didn't need the validation. But as we go out on the recruiting trail we've been preaching for a decade now that it's possible to win a national championship at Stevens. Seeing is believing for some, so we have that now. I think every coach imagines coaching a wrestler to a national championship. There's a lot of emotion tied to it. This overwhelming feeling. I've known for five years that Brett was a national champion, ever since his freshman year on campus when he made it to the national finals. The guy he lost to in the national finals his freshman year he beat earlier in the year. Sitting in that chair for the national finals, there was nothing more certain to me in the world than that he was a national champion. Whether he got his hand raised or not was unimportant to me. He was a national champion for five years before that. It wasn't this wild experience of emotions for me. I knew that this was going to happen whether in reality or in my mind. He had accomplished that goal many years ago. Now he has the hardware to prove it. It was a calming moment for me. I wasn't overwhelmed with emotions like I thought I might have been. It was just kind of surreal that we actually had achieved it together.
Kyle Slendorn placed fourth at the national tournament at 141 pounds. Lost to the national champion by a point in the semifinals. What does he need to do to contend for a national championship next season?
Favia: I think that there's some technical things that he's going to improve upon. He's had an unbelievable journey. As the season was going on he was just getting more and more dynamic. If he wrestled Jordan James another time it wouldn't have been a one-point match. Kyle would have beaten him by four or five points. I have no doubt in my mind. He's proven that throughout the season with other guys that he's wrestled. I am as confident in Kyle winning a national championship as I was in Brett. He brings a dynamic ability to wrestling that a lot of people can't wrestle with. He can scramble, but he's learned over time how to turn off that scramble when guys want to return it to him. So he's adapted a very solid foundational ability to wrestle. But he still has those intangibles to his scramble that a lot of people can't deal with. He's got a great gas tank. I think that we're just trying to put all of those pieces together and just make them connect, be a little bit more cohesive, a little bit more seamless in his wrestling. There are little pieces that we're just trying to implement with him. And they're going to come together in a short time. I think that it's the little details for Kyle that are going to seal the deal. He'll be the next one on top of the podium.
You finished fifth at the national tournament, with all three of your NCAA qualifiers becoming All-Americans. How would you assess your team's national tournament performance?
Favia: I felt great about our team's performance. We showed up with three wrestlers and put all three on the podium. We've had three All-Americans in the past, but that was showing up with four, five or six wrestlers. We went three-for-three. We had a national champ. Our three wrestlers that got on the podium were top-10 point scorers out of all 180 wrestlers in the tournament. They scored bonus points in almost every single match. That's why we were able to be in the top five. That's what we preach as a program. I didn't know if it would be possible to be in the top five with only three wrestlers. We almost took home a team trophy with only three point scorers in the tournament. I don't how many teams have ever done that before, because I've been in the top five with so few athletes showing up to the tournament.
You competed at Stevens. Now you're a coach. What makes Stevens special?
Favia: I think just the fact that we're trying to do something at Stevens that not very many other programs across the country are trying to do. It's one of the top academic institutions in the nation. We're recruiting against the Ivy League institutions. In some cases we have some guys who get accepted into Ivy League schools and aren't getting accepted to Stevens. There are other Division III institutions that have the same academic standards. But there's no other program in the country -- Division I, II or III -- putting together the academic piece and the athletic piece the way that we are at Stevens. That makes us unique. There's no Ivy League school across the country, except maybe Cornell, that's really fighting to win a national championship as a team. There's certainly no institution in Division III at the academic standard that we are that is vying for team title the way that we are as an institution. We're talking to recruits and our current athletes about being the best at everything. That's not lip service. That's a factual statement. We want our athletes to get the best jobs in the country. We want to guarantee them jobs, which we've been able to do for our wrestlers. We have an unbelievable return on investment with the amount of money that our guys are getting paid upon graduation. We have great recognition from our university as far as the different academic options that we have. Over the last 10 years we haven't finished outside of the top 12 in the country. We took home a team trophy in 2018. We were fifth last year. We are trying to win national championships and have a top-flight academic program.
You coached Troy Stanich to an outstanding career. He was a multiple-time All-American and was named Division III Wrestler of the Year by D3Wrestle.com. He was seeded No. 1 at the national tournament before the tournament was canceled. How will you remember him?
Favia: I will remember him as someone who bought into me and our program before we were a program or a philosophy. He was arguably our first. So that's how I remember Troy. No questions asked. This is what you think is possible here. I'm on board. Let's do it. As a competitor, Troy was humble, and maybe to his own detriment. He was by far the best wrestler I've ever coached to this day. He had a way and an ability to pick things up and see wrestling in ways that not very many other people can. When he was on the mat wrestling it was like watching water move through a river. There were no bumps. It was just smooth and effortless. People just couldn't hang with what he was able to bring to the table. His detriment was sometimes his level of humility or not really believing that he was as good as he actually was. Troy could have been a Division I national champion. I have no doubt in my mind. That's the level that he was at when he really wanted to put his mind to it. For Troy it was just getting over the hump of being at the national tournament and realizing his true ability.
Your associate head coach Anthony Bonaventura has been with you since the 2015-16 season. He was named the region's Assistant Coach of the Year. Scott DelVecchio joined your staff in 2018. Talk about your coaching staff. How do they complement what you're doing?
Favia: I think we all bring something unique to the table. My job as a head coach is to make sure that I surround myself with individuals who do things better than me. I know what I do well and know what I don't do well. Scott and Anthony fill in those voids. We know each other's flaws and we pick up on them. I can't do my job without Anthony and Scott in place. That's become very apparent as we've promoted Anthony to the associate head coach role now. There's nothing within the four walls of our program that Anthony doesn't have his hand in just as much as I do. He's invaluable to me. We've worked very hard to make sure that he doesn't go to other programs because he brings that much value. He's a tremendous asset to us on social media, marketing and in the recruiting front. Anthony identifies in large part who we need to bring in and I'm the closer.
Scott brings a great dynamic to our program. He was a Division I All-American in the Big Ten. That brings a level of validation to our program for our recruits. Our coaching staff doesn't need that validation. Scott certainly doesn't need that validation. But to have Scott in the room with our guys consistently, traveling with us, working out with the guys and really, for our wrestlers, Scott validates the things that Anthony and I are teaching. Anthony and I will teach something and Scott will teach the same exact thing. He will explain that it works at the highest levels. It gives confidence to our wrestlers and keeps breaking down that barrier of there being a big difference between Division I and Division III. There's not. Wrestling is wrestling. Scott's been a very, very big piece of the puzzle that we've brought in, Anthony's been an asset to us since I first came in.
Looking ahead to next season, you return a couple All-Americans. What are the expectations for next season?
Favia: We're ready to win a national title. But I'll tell you that every single year if you ask me the same question. It's just a matter of the guys staying healthy, the guys putting together the right pieces of the puzzle and our development continuing to go the way that it needs to go in the offseason and during the season. We're primed and ready. We've been knocking at the door for the better part of a decade. We're ready to win a national championship. Based on who we're bringing back, the guys who we have coming in as freshmen and other guys who have just been behind really high-level guys, we're going to have a pretty dynamic group of 10 killers who are ready to go come March.