Feb. 24, 2012
Watch Video Feature on Welch
*This feature story originally ran in the 2011 Midlands Championships Program and has since been updated*
By Stephen Boyle
Jason Welch is a sticky notes guy.
It's how he remembers things. From wrestling goals to homework assignments, if Welch needs to get something done, it's probably scrawled on a sticky note.
"It might be really sloppy," said the redshirt junior. "But I understand everything that's on there."
Welch has been using more sticky notes lately. After a sixth-place NCAA finish last season the 157-pounder realized he needed to set weekly "stepping stone" goals, not just specific end-of-the-season ones.
As a true freshman, Welch was the top-ranked high school recruit and the winner of the Junior Dan Hodge trophy given annually to the nation's top high school wrestler. His only goal was to be an All-American, but he went 2-2 at the NCAA Championships and didn't place. After a redshirt season Welch's only goal for his second year of competition was to be an NCAA champion. He handed top-seeded Adam Hall of Boise State his first loss and was in on the legs of eventual national champion Bubba Jenkins in the semifinals, but couldn't finish what would have been the winning takedown. He lost a close 8-5 decision to Jenkins and ended up placing sixth.
After a second season of failing to reach his ambitious end-of-the-season goals, Welch went back to the drawing board--or more accurately he bought a drawing board. The sticky notes don't stick to the brick wall in the basement room that Welch lives in this season. He was tired of searching through piles of sticky notes on the floor by his bed, so Welch bought a chalkboard for his junior season. It isn't just somewhere to write down his goals and stick his sticky notes; the chalkboard also symbolizes the maturation of Welch after three years as a Wildcat. The board doesn't just say `Be a National Champion' on it; instead, Welch scratches out weekly goals on the board as he accomplishes them.
With a perfect 21-0 regular season record, a Midlands title and win at the NWCA All-Star Classic under his belt, Welch has scratched out a number of goals already this season. Yet there are still more to accomplish with the Big Ten Championships March 3-4 and the final goal of the year, working towards an NCAA title March 15-17 in St. Louis.
The All-American has always been able to wrestle his best in big matches, according to Northwestern assistant coach Matt Storniolo, but the board allows Welch to focus on the season one match at a time.
"It doesn't matter how good you are when no one is watching," said the former Oklahoma 149-pound All-American who has worked closely with Welch since he started coaching at Northwestern in 2009. "Jay's a gamer."
Storniolo sees a lot of similarities between himself and Welch. They have lankier bodies than a traditional college middleweight wrestler and exciting wrestling styles. Storniolo called Welch's style "wide open" and Northwestern head coach Drew Pariano said it was "inventive."
"He just has some gifts that other wrestlers don't have," said Storniolo.
Dylan Marriott, Welch's roommate who also wrestles in the 157-pound weight class, added that Welch is fast and explosive, but not to the point where his fundamentals suffer as a result. Technique is one of Storniolo's specialties and one reason Welch was so excited to hear the former Old Dominion coach would be joining the Northwestern staff.
"I've never had a question for him that he hasn't had an answer for," said Welch, who admits asking Storniolo about various wrestling positions daily.
Storniolo and Pariano both say that Welch is a fun wrestler to coach, but his ability to wrestle under pressure--something the Wildcat grappler has had to do since high school--isn't teachable. Pariano's goal instead is to keep Welch wrestling at the level he did at the 2011 NCAA Championships for his entire junior season.
"I think the goal is to have him wrestle like that the entire year," said Pariano, who compared Welch's talents to recent NU greats Ryan Lang (a two-time All-American), Dustin Fox (an NCAA champion) and Jake Herbert (a two-time NCAA champion and Dan Hodge trophy winner). "He desires to be a national champion and he desires to win every match." Pariano and Storniolo agree that Welch has the potential to win two NCAA championships in his remaining two years as a Wildcat, but not without the proper focus.
"If he's on when that tournament comes around, I wouldn't want to wrestle him," said Storniolo. "He's definitely good enough."
Northwestern University's Midlands champions are listed on two display boards inside the Ken Kraft Wrestling Complex. The first board is out of room for names. The second is filled only by a purple tournament logo in the center and the text `Brandon Precin 2010' in the top left corner. After six-straight wins from Dec. 29-30, Welch now has a spot on that board.
The ultimate goal is to have his name in a place that's currently covered by a piece of tape that reads YOU in large block letters. The tape is located right under Jake Herbert's name. Herbert is Northwestern's seventh and most recent individual to win an NCAA championship.
Pariano knew Welch had the potential to have his name under Herbert's when the coach was recruiting the California state standout, just like every other college coach. Welch became only the 13th wrestler in California history to win three state titles. He chose Northwestern over schools like Stanford, Arizona State, Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa State--and just about every Ivy League school with a wrestling program.
"Everybody knew who Jason was in high school," said Pariano. "I think every school in the country was going after him.
Pariano loved Welch's ability to score from virtually any position on the wrestling mat, but he admits that if you asked him three years ago about Welch's leadership he would have said that the 157-pounder didn't have the personality for it. On the mat Welch has always been able to lead by example, but this season he's been more vocal and active outside of the wrestling room. Pariano's staff usually chooses the team captains themselves, but this season the team voted to have Welch and senior 197-pounder John Schoen as Northwestern's co-captains.
"I feel like it's not just the coaches forcing me to be in this position," said Welch. "My teammates and peers wanted me and John to lead this team."
Since being elected team captain Welch has more than stepped up to the challenge. He's not just the one shouting out when to switch from an inside to an outside shuffle during warm-ups at a Northwestern practice. Welch also frequently makes meals for teammates who are struggling with their confidence in the room or balancing Northwestern's tough academics with a rigorous Big Ten schedule.
"Everyone definitely turns to him if they have a problem," said Marriott, a regular training partner of Welch in practice. "This year he's really taken an active effort to make sure everyone is doing well."
Welch says he tries to emulate the leadership style of another former Northwestern captain, 133-pounder and 2011 graduate Bobby Joyce. As a senior, Joyce was replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore Levi Mele--who currently wrestles at 125 pounds for Northwestern--but the captain was still the undisputed leader of the team and the hardest worker, according to Welch. Now Welch tries to lead by example for younger wrestlers on and off the mat just like Bobby Joyce did for him last season.
"When I've had leaders, if they tell me to do something and then don't do it themselves I discredit them," he explained.
Being elected a team captain isn't the only sign of Welch's maturation. Pariano said that the 157-pounder's performance in the NWCA All-Star Classic showed that Welch was ready to wrestle at his highest level for an entire grueling Big Ten season. The then-third-ranked Welch defeated No.4-ranked Ganbayar Sanjaa of American, 8-5.
The All-Star match victory also is a sign that Welch's stepping stones goals are working. Written on his chalkboard for Nov. 21 were `Cut Weight Properly' and `Win the All-Star Match.' Although he accomplished both, the highlight of his experience in Tempe, Ariz., was the people he got to see.
It wasn't the All-Star wrestlers who Welch had seen in high school four years ago at similar All-Star tournaments like Dream Team and Dapper Dan, it was his family. Welch's sister, Brooke, is a student at Arizona State and his parents John and Barb flew to Arizona from Walnut Creek, Calif.
"As much as it was awesome to get to wrestle in that, I was just happy to see them," said Welch, who hasn't been able to see his entire family together as often as he would like since moving to the Chicago area.
Adjusting to the Midwest has been slightly tougher for Welch than adjusting to Big Ten-level wrestling on the mat. Welch picked up the collegiate wrestling style quickly. As a high school wrestler Welch constantly won matches by technical fall--defeating his opponents by 15 points--because he wasn't a very strong wrestler from the top position. Welch's father has been impressed with his son's ability to ride wrestlers in college, according to Pariano. In high school Jason was content to beat opponents by constantly taking them down after giving them escape points. That's changed in his time at Northwestern.
"We've all seen Jason win matches on riding time," Pariano said.
He can't bring the California climate to Northwestern, but Welch has managed to bring some of his hometown culture with him. Welch has ridden a longboard to class since his freshman year. He passed the tradition on the next freshman class, which included 157-pounder David Helmer. Helmer's grandparents own a skateshop about an hour outside of Evanston and his grandfather still longboards regularly. Now longboarding has become part of the Wildcat wrestling team's identity around campus.
"If I hear that sound of a longboard I know it's a wrestler trying to sneak up on me," Welch said with a smile.
Longboards aren't just restricted to the wrestlers. Storniolo was given a longboard by the athletes he coaches at the 2010 team banquet.
"In my defense I had a longboard before coming to Northwestern so that wasn't my first one, but it was still an awesome gift," he said.
Later in the conversation, Storniolo added that "it's a fun ride to be a part of," but he wasn't talking about longboards anymore. He was referring to Jason Welch's wrestling career.
Be the first to know what's going on with the 'Cats -- Follow @NU_Sports on Twitter, become a fan of Northwestern Athletics on Facebook! and subscribe to the NU Sports Express e-newsletter to receive the latest news, schedule updates and video and to interact with NU. For more information on following specific Northwestern teams online, visit our Social Media page!