JohnMark Bentley guided the Appalachian State wrestling program to a record-breaking season in 2021. App State set a school record with seven NCAA qualifiers and tied a school record with five conference champions. In addition, Jonathan Millner (149) became Bentley's fourth All-American at App State by placing eight at 149 pounds at the 2021 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.
Bentley has compiled a record dual meet record of 113-71-1 in his 12 seasons as head wrestling coach at App State. He has been named Southern Conference Coach of the Year four times during his career.
MatBoss recently caught up with Bentley and talked to him about this past season, upcoming season, coaching staff, SoCon and more.
Last season you set a program record with seven NCAA qualifiers, including five conference champions. You produced an All-American. You went 7-2 dual meets. How would you characterize last season for the program?
Bentley: I would say we had a decent year last year. Obviously, we broke a program record as far as NCAA qualifiers and conference champions go, but I think it also kind of ended a little bit disappointing. We were hoping to have a better performance at the national tournament. That's kind of what's helped motivate us this offseason. Our guys spent a lot of time working and improving their skills and becoming more physical and just worked on a lot of our weaknesses. So it was very rewarding, especially considering all the challenges we went through with COVID and COVID protocols and just the difficulty of the year with no fans and all that kind of stuff, to still find a way to break some program records was pretty neat. But it has kind of helped motivate us to that we want to strive for more this season.
Jonathan Millner became your fourth All-American at App State. I know he has dealt with a lot of adversity in his career. What did it take for him to put it together and earn a spot on the podium?
Bentley: He's just continually gotten better since he's been in our program. When he first came here out of high school he was only a one-time North Carolina state champ. Nobody really knew who he was. He struggled quite a bit his true freshman year. We redshirted him and he was wrestling opens at 141 pounds unattached and was having about a .500 record in those open tournaments. Actually, there was a moment where he actually decided to quit the team. I talked him into not quitting and the next year he really kind of bought in and started making some jumps. At the time, we had Matt Zovistoski. They had some very close matches. Matt ended up starting over him that year, but he won a couple of matches over national qualifiers and had really good record as a spot starter for us that year. He continued to improve, continued to get better, won a conference championship two years ago and then last year, repeated as conference champion, beat a three-time conference champion in the finals of the conference tournament, and then ended up earning the seventh or eighth seed at the national tournament and ended up finding his way on the podium. I think it's a testament to our program and how we develop our athletes. If you stay the process and stay the course, you're going to continue to develop and get better in this program.
How has the team looked so far in preseason? Any early takeaways?
Bentley: I think our guys have made a lot of gains in their skills this offseason. Our guys have really put the time this offseason. We've improved in some of the areas that I felt we were deficient in last season. So I've been happy with the progress but obviously we're going to start knowing a lot more once we get into the grind in the season and kind of start facing some adversity, then we'll find out how much we've improved. I think that's kind of what we're looking for, just to kind of see kind of where we're at when all that starts taking place.
You recently announced your schedule, which includes non-conference duals against NC State and UNC. You head to the Southern Scuffle before getting into your conference dual meet season. What are your thoughts on the schedule?
Bentley: It's going to be a really challenging schedule. I think one of the first events is the Mountaineer Invitational, which is our tournament. It might be the toughest tournament we have on our schedule. We've got four P5s that will be at that tournament. We've got Arizona State, Illinois, Indiana, Duke, and then you couple that with us, Gardner Webb, Kent State and Air force to make an 8-team field, that's going to be a pretty stiff test for our guys the second week of November.
So that was kind of the whole concept in building our schedule this year with seven returning national qualifiers. Unfortunately, last year with COVID we didn't have a lot of control over our schedule. We could wrestle maybe one or two meets outside of our conference schedule. So it was really difficult to get the guys the competition they needed to make sure they were battle tested at the national tournament. So that's one thing I tried to do this season … make sure our guys get the opportunity to see the guys that they need to see before the national tournament.
The SoCon Championships will be held at the Holmes Center in Boone for the fourth straight year. What does it mean for your program to be able to host the SoCon Championships?
Bentley: I think it's good. Obviously, it's nice to have it in a familiar venue. Personally, I think the great thing about us hosting it is we make it a legitimate championship atmosphere. We pull out all the stops. We have smoke, lights, a big video board and it feels like a championship. So I think that's the biggest advantage of us hosting it, just having the venue to make it feel like a championship as kind of a precursor to the NCAA championship. And so that's the biggest advantage. With hosting it also comes a lot of headaches … setting up and providing support to get the tournament set up. So with hosting it, there are some headaches as well that the teams that are visiting do not have. But it's definitely nice to have it in our venue. I think we have an awesome venue to host and it really does feel like a championship.
You signed a recruiting class this year that includes a mix of homegrown talent and out-of-state talent. I have heard you say this might be your most talented freshman class ever. What do you like about it?
Bentley: I like to reserve the majority of my judgment until I see them face some adversity and they get into the grind a little bit, make weight a couple of times. I hate to get too excited about any freshman class when they're not tested. One thing I will say about this class is most of them were here this summer training. I like their work ethic. I like their mentality … how they bought into our team culture. So as far as those things go, I've been really impressed with how easily they have bought into our team culture. They do have a lot of talent. They really do. They are a very talented group but at the same time I'm not going to get too excited until I see them go through some adversity and kind of see how they handle that.
Ian Miller serves as the head assistant in your program. What does he bring to your program?
Bentley: He's doing an awesome job. I think the biggest thing is he and I are very close in our belief systems and kind of the way we coach and our mentality, so we mesh really well together. And then when you throw coach Randall Diabe -- who I coached as an athlete -- into the mix, I just think we have a great balance on our staff of personalities. Obviously, Ian's got a lot of tremendous experience as a competitor, but he also brought some experience to our staff as a coach as well. I lost two assistants the same year and being able to hire him on staff, someone that already had some coaching experience, was a big deal. He's just been very good for our program. I can't say enough great things about him and the work he's putting in. He's just a really good person. Obviously, most people remember him as a wrestler, what a fierce competitor he was, but he's just a great person too. He's a great role model for our guys. He's very mature for his age. I just can't say enough great things about him.
Former App State wrestler Tony Gravely has had a successful MMA career and is now fighting in the UFC. Is he still involved with your program? And has his MMA success brought any additional notoriety to your program?
Bentley: A little bit. Obviously, I'm in communication with Tony. He hasn't been around a lot the last few years. He moved to Florida. Was originally from the Martinsville, Virginia area. He and I have had quite a bit of correspondence. He is looking to get back here soon and kind of reconnect. He kind of got away from the program for several years after he finished his wrestling career here, and we really hadn't had a lot of direct contact with him. But I know he's very interested in getting back involved in our program. Obviously, it's always great when you've got a former wrestler that was a national qualifier for us here and an accomplished fighter that's doing big things in the UFC.
App State, Campbell and Chattanooga have been the top teams in the SoCon for several years. There are some other programs on the rise. What do you think of the overall strength of the SoCon right now?
Bentley: I think our top set of teams are really good and can compete with anybody on a national level. We have some new coaches that are new to the conference that are trying to elevate their programs as well. I hope they're able to do that because I think that's the thing that will really kind of help this conference take another leap … when we have eight teams that are hopefully qualifying some bids for the national tournament. Obviously, that's what we need. We need depth. I think our top-end teams are really good and have a lot of quality wrestlers. But our depth just isn't quite there yet, like some of the other conferences. I know we have a lot of coaches that are working hard to achieve that. And I think our conference is continuing to get better and we're going to continue to do our part as well.
What are your expectations for the program this season?
Bentley: We have high expectations with seven national qualifiers returning. Our goal is to obviously be ranked top 25 in the country, win a conference championship and the biggest thing for us is we want to produce multiple All-Americans, like in 2012 when we had two All-Americans. We feel like we have the ability to produce multiple All-Americans, not just one. So that's kind of what's motivating us. It's getting our guys ready for that NCAA tournament. Most of their goals start with being an All-American or national champion. So that's kind of what we focus on to motivate us to get better each and every day. We have high expectations. Obviously, we have a lot of experience returning, a lot of good guys. But with that comes a lot of expectations. We need to be better than we were last year. That's the big thing. We've got to be an improved team from what we were last year.