UNC Pembroke's wrestling program has excelled under the guidance of head coach Othello "O.T." Johnson. Since taking over as the program's head coach in 2011, Johnson has led the program to four top-15 finishes at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships. He has compiled a dual meet record of 115-69. UNC Pembroke is currently 8-1 and ranked No. 13 in the NCAA Division II dual meet rankings by The Open Mat.
MatBoss caught up with Johnson and talked to him about the importance of dual meets, Midwest Classic, Logan Seliga, Lander, expectations and more.
Your program is off to a strong start this season in dual meets. You're 8-1. How much emphasis do you put on dual meets? How important are they to your program?
Johnson: I think dual meets should be important for any program. I think it just helps our sport grow. One, it's not as taxing on the non-wrestling fan. They don't have to sit in the gym all day trying to follow a tournament. And two, it's just two teams getting after it. They know who they're going for and they know who they're going against. So for us dual meets are a catalyst to building the culture and trying to get your guys to buy into what the big picture is. Even if a guy takes a loss in a dual meet he can still celebrate his team getting a win. So the dual meets are important. We're trying to do our best to be one of the best dual meets teams which ultimately leads to individual accolades down the line.
You competed at the Midwest Classic in mid-December and placed 21st out of 43 teams. How do you view the Midwest Classic? What do you try to get out of that tournament? Why is it important for your program to compete there?
Johnson: We feel like it's the Midlands or the Scuffle of Division II. Back in the day, when we took over the program, Midwest Classic used to be just a tough tournament. There were some top Division III teams there, some NAIA teams, a couple of junior college teams, and now it's been moved to just a Division II tournament. You can kind of gauge where you are midway through the season, what you need to work on and fix, or what you can keep from that tournament. We've had All-Americans that went 0-2. Willie Hilton, three time All-American for us, went 0-2. Later that season he was able to punch his ticket to the national tournament and get on the podium for the third time. The Midwest Classic is a great gauge.
Logan Seliga is undefeated and ranked No. 1 at 125 pounds by The Open. He won the Midwest Classic and Citrus Invitational. What has allowed him to make such a big jump in his wrestling this season?
Johnson: I can't give you that secret because then everybody's going to hear it. I'm just playing. Obviously, one thing Logan has done is make a commitment to competing at the weight class that he knows is going to going to give him the best opportunity to win a national title. That's 125 pounds. Logan was two-time national qualifier for us at 133 pounds. His freshman year he won the regional tournament and was set to some noise at the national tournament. Unfortunately, the tournament was canceled. In his COVID sophomore year, he qualified for the national tournament but was battling some injuries and didn't do as well as he wanted. He had surgery this past season and wrestled in only one event,. Newberry Open, and won that tournament pretty easily. Over the summer he was able to talk to the Kraiser brothers. I think that shifted his mindset and he made the commitment to be a total athlete and a total person.
Jake Piccirilli was a national qualifier last season. Has started this season 19-3 and is ranked No. 10 by The Open Mat. Two of his losses have come by one point and his other loss was to the No. 1-ranked wrestler. What does he need to do to become an All-American this season?
Johnson: Just stay consistent. Jake is a mat rat. You have to tell him to take it easy or take a day off. I think every coach wishes for guys like that. Jake just needs to stay consistent. Every time Jake can grab me in the room, he does. Because he knows I'll give him a different look and he craves that. The Midwest Classic was a great indicator where he stands and where he needs to be when March rolls around. Jake needs to just stay the course. He's seen the best in the country right now, and he's going to see some more people. He just needs to understand that he's no longer a secret. Every time he puts foot on that line he's going to get everyone's best. He needs to be prepared for it and not to take anyone for granted. And honestly, Jake needs to get more falls. The more falls he gets, the less time he has to spend on the mat and the more he can keep in the tank. I think if he can look to get bonus and get falls, that's going to want to prevent people from scouting him more in the heat of the moment so they can try to utilize it against him later on. You kind of preserve your weapons for later in the season, later in the tournament.
Rahsaan Vereen returned to the lineup and is now competing at 157 pounds after competing at 165 pounds last season. What went into that decision to move him down to 157 pounds?
Johnson: He made that decision. We've never made anyone go a specific weight class. Rahsaan wrestled all the way up at 174 pounds at one point in his career. He was like, 'Coach, I think I want to make the move down to 157 pounds. I'm like, 'Yeah right, you're joking, right?' He's like, 'I'm telling you, I can make it and I can do well there.' I said. 'All right, well we'll see when it happens.' He's been super disciplined with his diet, doing all the right things, and it's kind of showing in his wrestling. Obviously, we know there's another level he can get to but we're going to be patient with him as long as he continues to be patient with himself. He's been to the dance. He took down the fifth seed at the national tournament last year pretty easily. He knows he has what it takes to compete with those guys and be on the podium. He's done a good job. One of our better leaders on the team. A guy that knows what he wants and he's going to go after it. It's impressive to be able to have a guy that is a father. We know when he leaves the room he's going home to be with his family. We don't have to worry about what he's going to do outside of the room. In that regard, there's no worry about whether he will be disciplined with staying out of trouble. That's huge. That was one of the things that we were lacking. We're super stoked for him. It is good to see him take another step towards his goal as being an All-American and national champion.
At 197 pounds, Bryce Walker returned to your lineup. How big of a boost has that been to your team?
Johnson: Bryce is one of those guys that you would think has been here for 10 years, which it's getting pretty close. He's over the six-year mark. A guy that's been a complete team guy. A guy that has wrestled everywhere for us at one point because the team needed him to. Now he's coming back for his final journey to try to punch that ticket to the All-American podium and try to wrestle on Saturday night in March. Bryce is a leader. This past summer, Bryce was able to lead a handful of guys that were around here to train, putting together a training session for them, keeping them engaged to get up in the morning. That's something that is not coach-led. It's athlete-led. Obviously, he's had one blemish at the Citrus in the semifinals but sometimes losses are good for us. He's kind of taken that loss and run with it to try to make sure it doesn't happen again. We're excited for where he can be. The guy has been on top of it. He's been making sure that whatever happens it's not going to be a fluke. He's trying to make sure his teammates understand that. You put the time in you get the result you want; maybe not when you want it, but it's going to happen. And truly, it's been an honor to kind of be in his corner, just watching him develop as a wrestler, as a leader and just as good teammate.
Your last dual of the regular season is less than a month away against Lander, a program also in your conference and regional. What kind of challenge does Lander present to your program?
Johnson: Coach LaHaye has done a good job starting a program from scratch. He's done a good job of bringing guys that fit whatever they're trying to do down there. But we're not worried about Lander right now. The most important thing we have on our mind as a program is getting ready for our next competition. Obviously, we've seen some Lander guys in some events along the way. We know they have a good thing going down there, but we're also focused on trying to make sure we don't have a trap match along the way. That's why we try to reiterate to our guys on a consistent basis to not take any match for granted. Don't take any match off trying to look ahead to Lander. I'm sure Coach LaHaye is telling his team the same thing. We respect what the guys have going on down there, but we also believe in what we have going on here.
You host the NCAA Super Regional II this season. Does that give your program any sort of advantage? Or does it create more challenges?
Johnson: In my 17 years here, both as an assistant and a head coach, this will be our seventh time hosting an NCAA qualifier. So it's become one of those things where it's almost like a home dual. We get a chance to lay in our own bed, wake up in our own room, know the environment, know where we can go to be comfortable and know where everything is. That's the advantages of being able to have an awesome facility like the Jones building to be able to host 10-plus teams and have a tournament that can go off flawlessly. So it is an advantage and if anyone says there's a stressor, they haven't prepared. We have a great tournament director in Coach Anderson that peppers us with emails to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. So it takes a lot of pressure off me and my staff to be able to just coach and do the best we can. So we do have an advantage there. We get to go to our homes and sleep in our beds. Our guys get to go to their homes and sleep in their beds. They know the layout of the gym. All those things play a factor.
Lastly, what is this year's team capable of accomplishing? What are your expectations?
Johnson: Obviously, we want to take care of business. The main thing is winning every match in front of us, whether it's a dual meet, or whether we have some guys going to open tournaments. We want to make sure everybody is continuing to develop. We want to win a conference championship. It's important. It's important to our institution. It's important to our athletic department administration, the guys that have come before these guys. Falling short last year, and obviously beating Lander who was the eventual conference champion, it stung for some of the seniors that left without having that in their pocket. So this group of guys kind of have a chip on their shoulder and they want to make sure that they can kind of remedy that. But at the same time, we want to make sure that every guy is developing. We have a kind of mixed bag of wrestlers. We have two true freshmen in our lineup. We have some older guys. Bryce and Rahsaan that have been around the block. We have we have high expectations for our guys. We have a very historic program. We want to make sure that every guy comes in there and knows that expectation is to be a winner. They're slowly but surely buying into it. We're super excited and super happy for the way that the seniors have led these younger guys to not be wild in the moment but be wild for the moment.