Matt Lebe: West Virginia's Mr. Consistent
By Matt Keller - special to The Wrestling Mall
Matt Lebe's maturation has him on the verge of major payouts for the 157-pounder and his West Virginia teammates.
The two-time NCAA qualifier has been durable and solid. And on a depleted WVU team, Lebe has been among the consistent winners from last season to this.
After a 2002 redshirt, Lebe went 19-11 as a freshman before posting a 31-9 record as a sophomore and team captain in arguably the nation's toughest weight class. It was the third-most wins all-time for a WVU sophomore, behind just Jim Akerley and Steve Millwood's 32. And he was given the 2003 Rookie of the Year and the 2004 Coaches Awards.
But Lebe dropped Eastern Wrestling League finals both years and missed 2004 All-American status by just one win.
"When I was a freshman I came back to win in the last 10 seconds against (Bloomsburg's) George Carter. I thought it was a big win at the time," Lebe said, "but that was just immaturity. He beat me later, and that's the problem: I have beaten solid kids, but not at the right time."
In fairness, his gauntlet of 12 of 14 consecutive bouts versus ranked foes last season would test anybody. But that's not yet enough for the Jeannette, Pa native, who has been ranked since his freshman year and might be WVU's most-promising wrestler.
This year Lebe is 24-6 through four tournaments and five duels and will see his stiffest challenge yet as seven of eight 157 pound All-Americans return, including defending champion Matt Gentry of Stanford and 2003 champion Ryan Bertin of Michigan.
"Some other really good guys that didn't place came back, too, so it's really difficult," Lebe said. "I just wanted to be an All-American last year, but I refocused. I want to be a national champion, so even if that doesn't happen I should be in position to place for All-American."
Lebe hasn't been a sure tournament winner, and knows he must elevate his wrestling in the face of extremely strong competition. But past adversity will season and test a wrestler unlike anything else.
"One of the reasons I think I can be successful is that I lost my first match of my senior high school season," Lebe said. "I was not prepared; I was tired, out of shape, and I made a promise to myself that nobody would win because they out work me."
Lebe was a state champion that season for Jeanette High in one of the nation's toughest wrestling states after finishing second and third as a sophomore and junior, respectively.
Now Lebe, who has faced 12 ranked foes already this year, is slowly building his collegiate career toward both the EWL and NCAA championships in March. He is the team-leader in wins and owns victories over Arizona State's then-No. 6 Brian Stith and Iowa's then-No. 7 Joe Johnston. He also captured his second-straight WVU Open and Navy Classic titles, going a combined 9-0.
His notable losses are sudden victory decisions to Bertin and No. 2 ranked Alex Tirapelle of Illinois, and to then-No. 6 B.J. Wright of Nebraska in the beginning of the year.
"The more you wrestle the better your chances are to win," said Lebe, who has remained remarkably healthy for his number of bouts. "But I have wrestled good guys, and I feel comfortable wrestling more often than others. It gives me needed work."
Lebe, who has risen to as high as seventh in the nation, has five duels following Hofstra to prepare for his anticipated run at both an EWL and national championship and All-American status. Placing in the NCAA's top eight would make him the third member (Greg Jones and Brandon Lauer) of WVU's current team to be an All-American.
And with a 12-0 all-time record in regular season EWL bouts, Lebe is schedule to face Edinboro's Matt Hill and Pitt's Keith Gavin, both rated EWL 157-pounders. Lebe has though twice-already defeated Clarion's No. 11-ranked Chris Horning, who defeated him 7-4 for the 2004 EWL title. The two did not meet in WVU's shutout win over the Golden Eagles because of a Horning forfeit.
"This is a big part of the year for me," Lebe said. "All this goes into getting up for the EWL and national championships. If I'm fortunate enough to be on those days, anything can happen.
"Coach Turnbull is a master of showing me the training and what I need to be doing right. With that I think I can accomplish my goals."
Matt Keller is a senior at West Virginia University majoring in news-editorial journalism.