Ryan LeBlanc is entering his third season as the head wrestling coach at The Citadel. The former Indiana University wrestler spent four seasons as an assistant coach at Appalachian State before being tasked to lead The Citadel wrestling program prior to the start of the 2020-21 season.
Last season, LeBlanc guided the program to a 6-5 dual meet mark and a fifth-place finish at the Southern Conference Wrestling Championships. The Citadel crowned a conference champion and qualified two wrestlers to the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.
MatBoss caught up with LeBlanc and talked to him about last season, recruiting, expectations for the upcoming season and more.
You're entering your third season as head wrestling coach at The Citadel. Kind of second full season. Obviously, you have your vision of where you want to take the program. Have you been able to establish the culture you want at The Citadel in the two years you have been there?
LeBlanc: I can't say that we're perfect, but I think we're definitely moving in the right direction. I think that's something that we work on every day. We're continuing to build and attract the right people to come here and be able to carry that out. I think we're getting there but we're still working.
Last season you finished 6-5 in dual meets, 4-3 in the conference. Fifth at the SoCon Championships. Qualified a couple wrestlers to the NCAAs. Overall, how did you feel about the season?
LeBlanc: It was an exciting season for our program. We had a wrestler place at every major event. We had a guy place in Las Vegas and place at the Southern Scuffle. We had guys at the NCAA tournament. We had another conference champion. I was really happy with how last season went, especially with where we were as a program.
One of the biggest upsets on Day 1 of the NCAAs last season was Dazjon Casto knocking off national champion Austin O'Connor of UNC. How big was that moment for your program?
LeBlanc: I think it was really big. Huge. You captured a huge audience. The NCAA tournament is like no other wrestling tournament, especially with the fanbase there and sold-out arena. So for him to do that in a big moment was huge. That definitely helped recruiting and getting our name out there and showing that guys in our program are doing the right things. You can come from a small program like ours and make an impact on the national level.
You come from a wrestling family. Your dad was a coach and your brothers wrestled. When did you know you wanted to become a college wrestling coach? And what kind of led to that decision?
LeBlanc: I think that was always my dream. Like you said, my dad was my high school wrestling coach. He did a really good job and worked really hard at it. So growing up I got to spend a lot of time with my dad in a positive way through sport or wrestling. I got to kind of watch him growing up and see him make decisions as a coach and build a community around a small program. So I always knew I wanted to coach but I think the idea of being a college coach came to reality when I finished up my college wrestling career and got my first opportunity to be a graduate assistant. I kind of knew from then on that was what I wanted to do.
The Citadel is a military college. What's recruiting like? Are there certain types of student-athletes you recruit?
LeBlanc: To an extent. It's definitely an interesting place to recruit to because it's a military academy and has that stigma. But in reality, we're a state institution, so guys don't have to go on and serve in the military. So that really separates us from West Point, Air Force and Navy. We have a really strong ROTC program where guys can choose to go into the Armed Forces. We're always kind of recruiting to two populations. We're recruiting to those guys who want to go into the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. We're also recruiting to those guys who just want to use this as an avenue to get a really good education and wrestle. Both guys have to live a military lifestyle while they're in college. But I think a lot of our guys get on campus, get around our current team and see that there's guys just like that. They also see the benefits of going to an academy and having small class sizes and a structured schedule. You can really see how you can be very successful in the classroom, in the wrestling room and then afterward. I think the biggest thing from a recruiting standpoint is educating people what The Citadel actually is, what it's like and finding guys who say, yeah, that's the college experience that I want.
Both of your NCAA qualifiers from last season are gone. You return a talented team of younger wrestlers. Does it excite you about the future knowing you have some a younger team?
LeBlanc: Yeah, for sure. I'm really excited for this incoming freshman class. My first year we had no recruits. I took the job right at the end of the year, right before school started. It was during COVID. Admissions was locked down. So I came in and worked with the guys I had here. Then the second year our recruiting was all virtual. There were still no on-campus visits. Then this year these freshmen are the first class that we were able to have on campus. I'm really excited about them. We've got some kids that I think will do really well. It's exciting because we've got some other guys who have opportunities to step up and take leadership roles, kind of make a name for themselves. I think we have a few guys in the room that will do that. Like you said, we don't have a returning national qualifier from last year, but Selwyn Porter qualified in 2020, the year the NCAA tournament was canceled. Then the first year I took over he lost the true second match in the conference tournament. He's pretty good. He's got a lot of national-level wins. I think he's going to move down a weight class. I'm excited for him.
One of your talented young wrestlers is Jonathan Chesser. He was a three-time Georgia state champion. Had a strong redshirt season. What are your expectations for him?
LeBlanc: I'm excited. I'll keep my expectation hidden because I don't think anybody knows him. He's exciting to watch. He's got a huge gas tank. He's come a long way and he's got a high ceiling. He's really athletic and works really hard. We've got high expectations. I know he has high goals. So I'm just excited to kind of see him cut his teeth. He was behind Michael McAleavey last year, so we were able to redshirt him. This year I think he'll be able to step up.
Ben Haubert went 14-12 as a freshman at 174 pounds. Finished third at the SoCon Championships, losing a close semifinal match. How good can he be?
LeBlanc: I think he can be good. He was a true freshman. It's harder as a true freshman at The Citadel. That's one thing about The Citadel. Your freshman year is very challenging. Ben was able to step in from high school wrestling into a college room and be successful. He wrestled 184 for a lot of the season, then finally won the spot at the end of the year wrestling at 174. He lost a really close match in the semifinals at the conference tournament. Ben's just a super hard worker. I think he's a great product of what the structure of Citadel can do when you have somebody who's willing to work hard and buy into the environment here. I think he could be really good. We're really excited. He's made a lot of jumps since last season. He put in an awesome spring, an awesome summer and it looks good this preseason. I'm excited to see him.
You added transfers Blair Orr and Mark Chaid. What do those guys bring to your program?
LeBlanc: Like you said earlier, we are super young. We have a lot of true freshmen and true sophomores, so those guys bring some age. Both those guys are older guys. They've gotten an undergraduate degree. They're here getting their master's. A lot of people don't realize this, but at The Citadel we have several master's programs. Those guys live a civilian lifestyle. They live off campus. They take their classes on campus and they come to practice. They add some age to our team, some maturity, and then they don't have some of the struggles that some of your younger guys have to go through. I think it balances our roster out because we're so young.
You spent four seasons as an assistant at Appalachian State before coming to The Citadel so obviously you have a lot of familiarity with the Southern Conference. App State, Campbell and UTC have kind of been the front runners in recent years. What are your thoughts on the current state of the SoCon?
LeBlanc: I think the SoCon is getting better. We have a lot of new coaches. Davidson just hired new coach. Campbell's wrestling program has come into the top 25. App State has been good for a really long time. Same with UTC. For us to start having national qualifiers and had wrestlers in the round of 12, hopefully some other programs can do the same. I think the SoCon is really growing. It's expanding. It's getting better. As a conference we still have a ways to go, but if you're talking about where we are compared to where we were before, I think the SoCon is moving in the right direction.
I know you have a new locker room being built. How important is that project to your program?
LeBlanc: It's really exciting. I'll be the first to say we were not in a very nice space when I first took the job. I'll tell my guys this, locker rooms don't win wrestling matches. It doesn't really change, from my perspective, what it takes to win a wrestling match, but it will be an awesome space. I know our guys will love having space they can call their own that is nice. It has a lounge area and some amenities. I think they'll truly appreciate it and feel valued. It also shows recruits that we're investing in the sport of wrestling here and wrestling is big deal. I think we have great facilities. We're super fortunate here at The Citadel, from our campus to our weight room to our wrestling room. But that was the one facility that was really not up to date. So I think that puts us back on a level playing field with some of our competition.
Last year you had a very competitive schedule. You competed at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational and the Southern Scuffle before getting into your conference season. When do you expect your schedule to be released for this season? And are you able to share any highlights?
LeBlanc: Our schedule should be released very soon. There are a couple teams with conference basketball schedules that aren't released. Our conference basketball schedules just got released, so I've been able to kind of finalize a lot of our home competitions. But that's a challenge when you share facilities. We share a facility with basketball and volleyball. I know a couple other teams in our conference are in the same boat as we are. So hopefully it'll come out soon once that's finalized. We're going to go to those major tournaments. We're going to go to Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. We're of trying to finalize some of the preseason tournaments. We're going to have our open tournament again on Sunday, November 13, which is an awesome event for us and our program. We have a bunch of Division I teams bringing their guys here. Then I think this year the plan is to go to the new salute service event in Iowa, which is an exciting event. I know they're putting a lot of time and energy into it. So we're hoping that that's a successful event.
What kind of expectations do you have for this year's team?
LeBlanc: Our expectations are to be better than we were last year. I think that's definitely doable. We're going to have to grow up some young guys fast to accomplish that, but our expectations are high. I think we've got guys who should be competing for conference title, going to the national tournament competing to be All-Americans. I think that's the standard that our coaching staff has set for this program. It's our job to push them and help them along to get there. We have a lot of guys working hard.