“I want to be the first to win it all for App State”

All-American wrestler Jonathan Millner unsatisfied with national recognition

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Andy McLean

App State junior wrestler Jonathan Millner slams Chattanooga’s Tanner Smith in the 2020 Southern Conference title match. Millner is the reigning back-to-back SoCon champ at 149 pounds, and is a combined 20-0 in conference duals the past two seasons. This year, he also became the fourth All-American under App State head coach JohnMark Bentley’s leadership.

Silas Albright, Reporter

When App State junior wrestler Jonathan Millner walked off the mat at this year’s NCAA championship after earning prestigious All-American honors, he said the emotion that first overcame him was disappointment. 

Wait, so directly after reaching one of the most elite tiers in college sports for only the ninth time in App State history and the first time since 2017, Millner felt disappointed? 

“I felt like I didn’t wrestle my best the whole tournament,” Millner said. 

Millner, the No. 7 seed in the 149-pound bracket, won his first two matches to reach the quarterfinals before falling 5-2 to eventual national champion Austin O’Connor of North Carolina. Millner followed that up with a 10-7 decision over Duke’s Josh Finesilver to secure top-eight and All-American status. He then dropped two more placement matches to finish eighth on the national podium. 

“I expect to win everything,” said Millner, a Greensboro native. “My goal going in there was to win a national title, which for some people may be far-fetched, but for me, that’s one thing I put down. I want to win it all. I want to be the first to win it all for App State.”

Almost three weeks before, Millner won his second straight individual Southern Conference title, automatically qualifying for the NCAA tournament. Over the past two seasons, Millner, who didn’t start wrestling til his freshman year of high school, is a combined 20-0 in SoCon duals and tournament matches. 

“He expected to win the conference tournament, we all expected him to win it. It wasn’t really anything that surprised any of us,” App State head wrestling coach JohnMark Bentley said. “He’s just got bigger goals and bigger aspirations.”

So when Millner says he expects to win everything, he means everything. 

“There’s always a really fine line between confidence and cocky, that’s what I try to explain to everybody,” Millner said. “No matter if you try or not, you’re always going to cross it, but you can’t care about that — Let’s say you are cocky. If you treat people with respect and you do the right things, they’re just going to say you’re confident.” 

Although Millner has breezed through the past two SoCon seasons, he wasn’t always this dominant. In fact, wrestling unattached as a redshirt freshman in 2017-18, he actually struggled so much that he nearly quit the team.  

Bentley said Millner dealt with common “mental and physical struggles” many wrestlers he’s coached have experienced as freshmen, and that the freshman version of Millner was “nothing like the Jon-Jon you see now.” When Millner reached the point where he was just about ready to walk away, the two had a conversation and Millner decided to stay on the team. 

“I think at that point, he made a decision mentally that he was going to buy in 100%,” Bentley said. “Once he finally committed to being here, putting down roots, from that point forward, his trajectory has just started taking off.”

Millner explained that when he was still new to the sport and getting tossed around more, he’d pick one positive thing that he did well out of every match he wrestled to focus on and hype himself up, even while in reality, he wasn’t near the wrestler he wanted to become. He’d also pick one thing he could change and improve on from each match. He’d take that one thing he did well to boost his confidence, and take the area to improve on into training to continue strengthening his skills. 

“Once I do that, I’m creating the opportunity to find a way to get better. Then, that fake belief in myself becomes real belief, and that turns into confidence,” Millner said. 

Millner’s attitude, whatever the correct adjective for it may be, is an important and enjoyable one to have in the locker room that helps motivate the team to get better, according to both his teammates and head coach. 

“I don’t know if it’s cocky or confident or what, but no matter what, if you say you’re going to wrestle him, he’ll be like ‘Alright, I’m going to beat you up today then,’ or something like that,” App State senior 174-pounder and fellow NCAA qualifier Thomas Flitz said with a chuckle. “He’s always got something to say, got this little chip on his shoulder, he’s always ready to scrap. He doesn’t fear anybody.” 

 Millner said he thinks trash talk is the best way to build confidence in his teammates, and in a sport as fiercely competitive as wrestling, the culture of the program has to be that way in order for success. 

Millner and his team’s resume speaks for itself: this year, they set a program record with seven out of 10 starters qualifying for the NCAAs, including five individual conference champions. 

“Everybody’s good in college, but what really separates you, is if you continue to get better,” Millner said. “That’s the hard part.”

He’s already accomplished a lot as an App State wrestler, but in order to keep improving, Millner knows he can never become satisfied. Earning All-American recognition is clearly something to be proud of, but Millner first felt disappointment. Luckily, he’s got a whole other year left to work toward his ultimate goal. 

“The scary thing is he’s just going to keep getting better,” Bentley said. “He’s not near tapped-out to what his full potential is. I really feel like he could be the first national champion from this program. I think he believes that, as well.”