Roundabout journey lands Beckner in D3 national wrestling tournament

Ferrum College freshman Zach Beckner, a Warren County High School graduate, controls Ursinus College's Chris Tan during the 125-pound semifinal at the NCAA Division III East Regional tournament in Rocky Mount on Feb. 25. Beckner, who won the match, 12-1, and claimed the regional championship, has qualified for the NCAA Division III Championships, which begin Friday in La Crosse, Wisc. Photo courtesy of Atenoya Morris/Ferrum College

For much of the last six years, wrestling has been Zach Beckner’s life. He went all in on the sport, committing nearly every weekend to training or competing in tournaments.

At Warren County High School that dedication led to two Virginia High School League Group 3A state titles, the second of which came at the conclusion of his senior season in February 2016. He graduated that year as the Wildcats’ all-time leader in career wins, as a three-time champ in the Bull Run District, Conference 28 and Region 3A East, as the top-ranked 126-pounder in the state according to the Virginia Wrestling Association.

That commitment opened the door to a future as a Division I college wrestler, to a chance to become a contributor for one of the NCAA’s top programs in Virginia Tech. Beckner signed a commitment letter with the Hokies at the end of last April, fully intent on walking on for Tech and then-head coach Kevin Dresser for the 2016-17 season.

But Beckner’s devotion to the sport had also taken a toll, and he never made it to Blacksburg.

Speaking via phone on Wednesday afternoon, Beckner detailed the events that came after he scribbled his signature on that commitment letter inside Warren County’s gymnasium last spring. About how, a month later, he had called Dresser, discussed where Beckner thought he was going in life and the direction of Tech’s program, and ultimately informed the former Hokie head coach he was withdrawing his commitment.

Ferrum College freshman Zach Beckner, top, grapples against Delaware Valley's Brenden Velez during the NCAA Division III East Regional 125-pound championship match on Feb. 25 in Rocky Mount. Beckner won the bout 4-2. Photo courtesy of Atenoya Morris/Ferrum College

Beckner’s life, he said, had run into a “rough patch.”

“I guess I kindmof felt like I was obligated to go to Tech because I was the first two-timer from Warren County and everything. I had the offers from all the D1 schools, so it was like I had to take those, right?” Beckner said.

“But then I didn’t wanna go in there and be behind someone for four years because they’re gonna continue to recruit good kids, like nationally ranked kids that are gonna come in there every year. I didn’t wanna be a backup that was just being used as a wrestling dummy.”

After his decommitment Beckner said he isolated himself from many of the people around him. He didn’t do much wrestling, aside from the occasional visit to the OutKast Wrestling Club and Walker Wrestling, both located in Front Royal. He was burnt out from the sport.

When the fall semester arrived Beckner enrolled in classes at Lord Fairfax Community College and was “just doing my own thing” when he received a text from Ferrum College wrestling coach Nate Yetzer.

Ferrum College freshman Zach Beckner stands atop the 125-pound podium after winning the NCAA Division III East Regional tournament on Feb. 25. Photo courtesy of Atenoya Morris/Ferrum College

Yetzer, who said Beckner was the Division III program’s top recruit from the 2016 class, had learned that the Warren County grad had never made it to Virginia Tech and wanted to reiterate that Ferrum’s door was always open.

Beckner sat on Yetzer’s invitation for about a month before giving the Ferrum coach his answer toward the end of the 2016 calendar year.

“I just kind of got on board that I needed to get out of Front Royal,” Beckner said. “I kind of got on board with that and got the train rolling.”

Beckner arrived at Ferrum on Dec. 28, in time for the start of the second semester. Just over two months later, Beckner is now 12-0 for the Panthers, has won a 125-pound title in the Southeast Wrestling Conference tournament and claimed an NCAA Division III East Regional crown.

He’s gone from taking nearly 10 months off from wrestling to a spot in the NCAA Division III Championships, which begins Friday at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

“He’s done a great job. We already had a really good team, and we had a really good 25-pounder, but Zach came in and brought the level of intensity up in the room,” said Yetzer, whose program won the team title in the East Regional tournament on Feb. 25.

“He definitely helped to push us over the edge, and to be a national qualifier as a freshman is a pretty big thing.”

Beckner’s first collegiate match came on Jan. 11 in a home dual against Greensboro College, during which he pinned Matthew Insogna in 1:35. Beckner recalled hitting a dump that put Insogna on his back within the first 10 seconds of the bout and thinking, “Wow, I missed this.”

He followed that up a few days later by going 3-0 in the Virginia Duals, his final win of the tournament – a 5-4 decision – coming against Kutztown’s Austin Petril, who stands as the No. 11 125-pounder in NCAA Division II in InterMat’s most recent rankings.

An ankle injury sidelined Beckner for about three weeks, he said, but he returned in time for the SEWC tournament on Feb. 11, which he won by beating teammate Bailey Cooper in the championship final – teams were allowed to enter two wrestlers in each weight class, Yetzer said – to earn the Panthers’ starting spot for the remainder of the postseason.

In the East Regional tournament, held at Ferrum, Beckner went 4-0, his last three wins coming against wrestlers who had qualified for the national tournament last season.

Beckner beat Rob Murray (Stevens Institute of Technology), last year’s regional runner-up, 13-3 in the quarterfinals and topped last year’s East Regional champ, Ursinus College’s Chris Tan, 12-1 in the semis. He claimed the 125-pound title by beating Delaware Valley’s Brenden Velez, a Brentsville District High grad, 4-2.

Yetzer, a former assistant coach at Virginia Tech who formed Ferrum’s wrestling program four years ago, said Beckner’s most attention-grabbing attribute is his will to win.

“I think he’s got a lot of desire,” Yetzer said. “His goal is to be a national champ this year. He loves competition. That’s one thing that really stood out to me when he was in high school was he relishes the opportunities to wrestle the best guys, which is rare for a lot of kids, especially freshmen.”

If Beckner does indeed cap his first college wrestling season with a national title, he will have earned it. Seeded next to last in the 18-man 125-pound bracket, he will face Central College (Iowa) junior C.J. Pestano, last year’s national runner-up, in the opening round.

Beckner said he’s approaching the Division III Championships much like he did the regional tournament – with an underdog mentality.

“I’m not really worried about it. I’m gonna go in there and beat the crap out of them. That’s my plan,” Beckner said. “I trust in my abilities and I know what I’ve been training for and I know how to wrestle. I’m excited.”

Beckner sounded less certain about his wrestling future after this weekend’s tournament. He said he’s happy with his decision to attend Ferrum, grateful for the friendships he’s quickly made and his relationship with Yetzer, and envisions himself returning to the Panthers next season.

But he also hasn’t ruled out once again pursuing a Division I dream.

“My thing now is I got back in the groove and everything and I’m just feeling it out,” Beckner said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll probably end up going to Ferrum again next year.

“And then I don’t know about going D1. It sounds good though. I think I could do it. But right now I’m just focused on nationals and then coming back next year.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com