New assistants bring fresh perspectives to App State wrestling

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Andy McLean

App State wrestling coaches focus on a match between senior Codi Russell and an opponent from Gardner-Webb on Jan. 23 in Buies Creek. (From right: assistant coach Randall Diabe, head assistant coach Ian Miller, head coach JohnMark Bentley.)

Connor Davidson, Associate Multimedia Editor

When a team has a lot of success, it’s only natural for its coaches to be asked to take on better jobs at other schools. App State wrestling is no exception to this.

Over the last five years, the Mountaineers have won four conference championships and had 22 individual berths for the NCAA Championships. After this level of success, former co-assistant coaches Josh Roosa and Ryan LeBlanc took head coaching jobs elsewhere. Roosa was hired to become the head coach at King’s College in May, and LeBlanc was named the new head coach at SoCon opponent The Citadel in July.

This left a big hole on the Mountaineers coaching staff, but it wasn’t one that couldn’t be filled. In the offseason, App State brought in two new coaches, Ian Miller and DJ Fehlman, and promoted Randall Diabe from a volunteer assistant to a full-time assistant coach.

Miller was hired as the new head assistant coach in September. He brings Power 5 coaching experience with him, coaching as an assistant at Oregon State for four years. Miller coached 10 Pac-12 champions and four all-Americans in his time at Oregon State, and before that, he was a three time all-American himself at Kent State. When comparing App State to a Power 5 school, Miller doesn’t see too many differences.

“Everything you think of at Oregon State or a Power 5 school, you have available to you here,” Miller said. “Coming from a Power 5 school, App State has everything and more.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, getting to know the players was more of a challenge since they couldn’t meet face to face. Luckily, the players made the transition very well and Miller was able to get settled in quickly.

“The guys are great, the culture here is unmatched… I’ve never experienced anything like it,” Miller said. “Creating that bond with the guys was really easy, it was a really easy transition.”

Diabe brings a unique perspective as an assistant since he has been a part of the team for five years— as a wrestler from 2015-19 and as a volunteer assistant last season. In his wrestling career, he finished with a 77-48 record and was a conference champion his senior year.

As a returning member of the team, Diabe is able to coach in a more understanding way since he’s been in the players’ shoes. This allows him to serve the team in a way the other new assistants can’t.

“I’m just a good resource because I’ve been through the program and I can tell everybody I know how it is, I know the process, I know everything that needs to be done,” Diabe said. “Guys can come to me for advice and things of that nature, and I can be able lead them in the right direction, whether it be on the mat, off the mat or academically.”

Having stayed with the team through this big coaching change, Diabe got to see how the players reacted to having two longtime coaches move on. This was certainly a low point for the team, but those feelings were quickly replaced with excitement to work with the new assistants.

“Losing those other two coaches, it hurt. It was like a punch in the stomach,” Diabe said. “Our guys, they were down for a little bit, thinking about the next move, because of the relationship and bond they had already built with those guys. And then Ian (Miller) and DJ (Fehlman) coming in, that’s all they talk about.”

App State wrestling volunteer assistant DJ Fehlman looks on during the Mountaineers SoCon dual against Campbell and Gardner-Webb in Buies Creek Jan. 23. (Andy McLean)

Fehlman was brought on as a volunteer assistant in October. This is his first coaching job, having completed his wrestling career at Lock Haven last season. He finished with a 113-44 overall record and wrestled against App State’s Codi Russell a few times. Fehlman’s size and age makes him a valuable asset in practice, since he can still grapple with some of the smaller players.

“I weigh like 140, so I’m still able to scrap with all these little guys and still not feel like I’m smushing them,” Fehlman said. “Besides that, I feel pretty good in all positions. I’m just young and willing to scrap every day.”

Similar to Miller, Fehlman was welcomed to the team with open arms. The players were immediately ready to learn from him and start building the relationships needed to have strong performances all season long.

“These guys came in, I just coached with positivity to some of these lighter guys and instantly had their respect,” Fehlman said. “They start to respect you and learn from you, and then you build a bond, and then next thing you know you’ve got everybody buying in.”

The coaching changes have not seemed to affect the overall success of the Mountaineers too badly. Currently, App State is 7-2 overall, with the two losses coming at the hands of No. 4 NC State and SoCon foe Campbell. 

App State’s regular season is over, but the Mountaineers are set to host the SoCon Championships at the Holmes Center on Feb. 28.