Fast learner Tomei headed to NCAA Championships

By Mike Furlong

Ryan Tomei is an oddity in the wrestling world.

A redshirt senior on Pitt’s team, Tomei only… Ryan Tomei is an oddity in the wrestling world.

A redshirt senior on Pitt’s team, Tomei only began participating officially in the sport during his junior year in high school, meaning he’s had seven years of organized wrestling experience. Many elite wrestlers reach the seven-year mark before they even begin high school.

Although Tomei has always been athletic, he focused mainly on playing football and baseball when he was younger.

“I had wrestled a little bit in junior high, but I wasn’t very good at it so I stopped,” he said. “At the end of my sophomore year, I was doing some wrestling intramurals and I went against the school’s varsity heavyweight. I pinned him in a few seconds.”

Luckily for the Panthers, Tomei decided to continue wrestling after that. As Pitt’s wrestling team enters the NCAA Championships this week, there is hope that several athletes, including Tomei, will take home honors.

In his final year as a Panther, Tomei has become one of the most important members of the wrestling squad. He means more to the team than just his 28-4 record on the year, 107 career wins and 40 career pins — the second-most in school history.

“To this team, Ryan is a real leader,” head coach Rande Stottlemyer said. “He really is a great kid. He leads by example. He’s a quiet guy, but he’s definitely not afraid to speak his mind.”

In two years of wrestling in high school, Tomei was a Pennsylvania state place-winner twice: seventh as a junior and fifth as a senior. Pitt assistant coach Jason Peters scouted Tomei.

“I think I remember calling him sometime early around August or September of his senior year,” Peters said. “He was playing football at the time and I wanted to talk to him about his options of coming here. I remembered seeing him at a tournament and we wanted him to wrestle with us.”

Once Tomei began wrestling for the Panthers, he was able to grow and gain the valuable experience he needed. Tomei believes that his inexperience actually helped him learn at the collegiate level.

“Truthfully, it wasn’t that difficult to learn,” Tomei said. “It was hard because it took a lot of hard work, but it was almost natural to come here and start learning. I learned a lot very quickly. I learned how to work hard at the same time that I was learning the moves.”

Stottlemyer agreed that, in a way, Tomei’s lack of experience worked to his advantage.

“In a way we were fortunate to have Ryan without a whole lot of experience,” Stottlemyer said. “We didn’t have to break any bad habits with him. He came in pretty unpolished, so that when we told him something, he would learn from it.”

It was a great learning experience for Tomei to wrestle with fellow heavyweight Zach Sheaffer at every practice for the first three years of his college career. Sheaffer was a two-time Eastern Wrestling League champion in 2005 and 2008 and All-American in 2009. He has since graduated and moved on to be an assistant coach at Clarion.

“He was my roommate,” Tomei said. “He really was one of my better friends. We would work hard in the room, but right after, we’d be friends again. I got to know him right away. We still have a good relationship. After [Pitt] wrestled against Clarion he said I pinned his kid [Quintas McCorkle] with everything he told him not to do.”

In his second season as a Panther, Tomei wrestled in 30 matches, placing in five tournaments including a championship at the Shorty Hitchcock Memorial Classic. Tomei also won his only two dual meet bouts.

“I decided I wouldn’t care whether I won or lost and just get a chance to wrestle a lot of matches,” Tomei said. “It was a big confidence thing for me to go out there in those dual matches and beat those starters, because not a whole lot of backups would be able to do that.”

The following season Tomei compiled a 13-3 record. At the U. S. Open, Tomei took fifth place, including two key victories over NCAA All-Americans David Zabriskie of Iowa State and Ryan Gritter of Central Michigan. Zabriskie has since gone on to be a three-time All-American and 2010 National Champion.

“I think he was fortunate to be around some really good people while he was developing,” Peters said. “[Matt] Kocher, Keith Gavin, Drew Headlee were All-Americans so he really got to watch people in front of him make it.”

In his next competition, Tomei took fourth place at the World Team Trials, earning him a spot on Team USA’s freestyle team traveling to Poland in the summer of 2009. Tomei wasn’t the only Panther in Warsaw. Peters, one of Team USA’s two coaches, accompanied him.

“It was probably one of the best experiences that a college kid can have,” Tomei said. “I got to go over there and learn a ton of stuff. Everyone there is the best from the collegiate wrestling world, so it was great to travel and learn with them.”

In 2009, Tomei was finally able to break into the Panthers’ starting lineup. Tomei, then a junior, took advantage of this opportunity by amassing a 33-7 record on the season, leading the team to its first EWL team title in history.

“I was really excited but kind of nervous going into the year,” Tomei said. “I was pretty pumped. When I first came here, I was just happy to be on the wrestling team. After a few years I wanted to really wrestle and be in the lineup. During that season, I was able to be a part of the team title. It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life.”

At the EWL individual tournament Tomei won all three of his matches on his way to an individual title after a pin in the finals over Brandon Williamson of West Virginia.

Tomei was named the tournaments’ outstanding wrestler.

Tomei earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships, where he won his first match of the day over Ziad Haddad of North Carolina. Tomei lost his next two matches to Mark Ellis of Missouri and Cameron Wade of Penn State — both wrestlers who Tomei has beaten in the past.

“I was ready to go — or at least I thought I was ready to go — at Nationals,” Tomei said. “I wrestled a good first match. I came up to Ellis and he’s basically a big lineman, he doesn’t move a whole lot but he’s strong. It was a close 2-1 match, it didn’t go my way and I was really upset after. I took it too hard on myself. I went on to wrestle Wade, a guy I’ve beaten several times before, and I lost that too.”

He added that he’s battled nerves during his wrestling career, an issue that sometimes costs him matches.

“The last month or so I’ve really been training myself to get the nerves out,” Tomei said. “I have been more able to go out and focus on the matches and not get stopped by my head. Some days I just don’t wrestle as myself. I want to always wrestle my best. The technique is there, I’m athletic, I’m fast and I’m strong — it’s just my head that’s in and out. If it’s in, there’s a good chance I beat a lot of guys.”

This season, a Tomei win has almost been taken for granted at Pitt’s matches, and Tomei has won his second EWL individual title.

“It really has been nice to have Ryan as an ace in the pocket heading into the last bout,” Stottlemyer said. “We have some great guys here, but if another team wanted to wrestle one bout for the match, he’d be the guy I’d send out.”

Heading into the NCAA Championships, Tomei is looking for the chance to make a name for himself.

“He really is a great wrestler,” assistant coach and former All-American wrestler Kocher said. “He’s got a lot of size, but you know there are some big guys that you don’t feel the weight if they don’t know how to use it. With Ryan you really feel that weight.”

Peters agreed that Tomei is a tough athlete to wrestle against.

“At this point, we expect Ryan to win every match,” Peters said. “I think he will be an All-American, but our goal is for him to be the National Champion.”

Tomei is currently ranked No. 6 nationally by InterMat, a leading amateur wrestling website,. Despite his spot at sixth, Tomei has beaten the top three ranked wrestlers: No. 1 Zach Rey from Lehigh, No. 2 Jarod Trice from Central Michigan and No. 3 Ryan Flores from American.

“You know, I’ve beaten [Rey] before,” Tomei said. “It wasn’t recently, but I have beaten him. I have to be smart with him — he’s a big, strong guy that knows how to get his way. He’s a nice guy, I’ve got nothing against him, but he needs to be beaten some time. And I want to be the one that does that.”

Going forward, Tomei sees himself staying involved in wrestling after his collegiate career ends. He’s looking ahead to the Olympic Trials and to a career as a wrestling coach. Tomei will graduate from Pitt after majoring in health and physical activity with a concentration in wellness specialization and minoring in fitness. He has consistently maintained a GPA above a 3.0. “The best thing I can think of looking back is my friends,” Tomei said. “I’ve met a lot of good guys here. The coaches and the team have meant a lot. I’m not a big-city person, but I’ve met a lot of good people — people I’ll know all of my life.”