EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – Sometimes it's worth waiting for a second chance.
Matt Lester is having his second chance to work with SIUE wrestling Head Coach Jeremy Spates. Lester, who spent four seasons (one as a redshirt) for the University of Oklahoma, is finishing his collegiate career with the Cougars.
Spates originally helped recruit Matt and his twin brother Nick to Oklahoma. Spates went on to become an assistant at Cornell and now is completing his first season as the leader of the Cougars.
"He asked me if I wanted to wrestle my last year and go to graduate school here, and I said I would think about it. He gave me the offer and I ended up here." said Lester.
Spates said he had heard Lester had been looking for opportunities after graduating with his bachelor's degree from Oklahoma with one season of eligibility remaining.
The Eureka, Mo., native was a three-time NCAA qualifier and two-time Big 12 Conference Tournament runner-up at Oklahoma. His goals now at SIUE are past simply becoming a four-time NCAA qualifier.
"The ultimate goal is to become an All-American," said Lester.
Spates said having Lester in the practice room has improved not only Lester's weight class but also the whole team.
"He's definitely upped our level," said Spates. "He came in right away and started wrestling two or three classes above him and was beating them or really pushing them."
Lester moved up to the 165-pound weight class this season. He previously has been at the 149- and 157-pound weight classes. Competing at a higher weight class has forced Lester to work even harder.
"Weight issues can be a burden because you focus so much on getting your weight down, you don't focus as much on wrestling, and now I can focus more on the wrestling," said Lester.
The transition from Oklahoma to SIUE has been an easy one for Lester.
"There are not too many differences – practice-wise, routine-wise, the teammates," said Lester. "It's been very similar, and that's why it's been such an easy transition. Coach Spates has us on the same routine, and that's probably why in the next few years SIUE is going to be a big-time program because he has us on that path."
Even the team has been receptive to a newcomer in the practice room.
"Everywhere you go, every wrestling team is like a family - very accepting," said Lester. "We're brothers. It's like a special fraternity because we all know what we go through. It's a very competitive and physically-demanding sport so you really bond with your teammates."
That bond extends to the coaching staff. When Spates recruited Lester and his brother to come to Oklahoma, Lester said he saw an individual who feeds off of optimism and supportiveness.
"We mesh really well with Coach. He's great," said Lester. "We never really did well with coaches who are military style that yell at you a lot. That just kind of shuts us down. Coach Spates is a very encouraging guy, and we respond much better to that."
Nick has remained at Oklahoma to pursue a master's degree in human relations. Matt, meanwhile, will be working on a master's in business administration.
"I talk to my brother all the time. This is actually the longest we've been apart our whole lives," said Lester. "He's really jealous of me for getting to have Coach Spates as a coach."
There has been a six-month break between training at Oklahoma and at SIUE. The layoff could hurt some athletes but hasn't been much of a problem for Lester.
"When I first came in I felt a little rusty, and I wasn't too sure. But I've actually gotten caught up a lot and feel really confident about going to Nationals and going far in that tournament," Lester said. "I've got my abilities back in a way. I thought it would take longer since I had such a long break."
In some ways Lester said there is an advantage for wrestlers at SIUE. The new weight room in the Lukas Annex, which is connected to the Vadalabene Center, allows wrestlers to benefit from having a lifting facility close to the wrestling room to get a drill in.
"It's a very nice weight room so everyone loves it," said Lester.
His record is 4-1 having won the Grand View Open. Lester will have to battle through the SoCon Tournament in late March for another opportunity at the national championships.
"That would be huge," said Spates. "He's qualified before. The goal is to have him qualify as an All-American. Having our first national qualifier is going to be pretty special. I don't think that it is going to be solely Matt who qualifies for the NCAA tournament. I think we're going to have a number of guys who can go, but we're looking at him to be our first All-American."