Dan Lefebvre is in his seventh season as head wrestling coach at STMA (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
Dan Lefebvre is in his seventh season as head wrestling coach at St. Michael-Albertville and 24th season on the coaching staff. During his time at STMA, the Knights have won six state wrestling championships and finished runner-up eight times, including the past three seasons.
InterMat caught up with Lefebvre and talked to him about the Minnesota Christmas Tournament, The Clash, Apple Valley, Thorn brothers, Chas Betts, national rankings, and more.
St. Michael-Albertville recently won the Minnesota Christmas Tournament, finishing nine points ahead of Apple Valley. How important was that tournament title to the program?
STMA won the Minnesota Christmas Tournament, finishing in front of Apple Valley (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)Lefebvre: We've won it one other time, which was during the 2005-06 season when we had a real senior-dominated team. Guys like Mike Thorn and Joe Grygelko were on that team. It's a fun thing. It wasn't one of our goals that we put down, but it's nice. We didn't have a heavyweight in the tournament, so we went with 13 weights. Our heavyweight had a concussion, but now he'll be back for The Clash. Apple Valley was without two starters, so that kind of evens out. To be honest with you, we kind of expected to win based on the seeds. We have the guys to do it and we did it.
What are your thoughts on the pairings for The Clash?
Lefebvre: We figured if we won the Christmas Tournament we would be a No. 1 seed. We have been a No. 1 seed in the past, but we have never made the final bracket. That final bracket is brutal. When you get there it's tough. We could go 3-0, 0-3, 1-2 ... There will be some close duals. We have Oak Park-River Forest (Ill.) if we get to the finals of our pool. They beat Carl Sandburg (Ill.), and yet Carl Sandburg got a No. 1 seed, so that was a little confusing. It will be tough getting there. In the semis we'll probably face either Collins Hills (Ga.) or Lake Stevens (Wash.). Collins Hills beat us a couple years ago, so I know they have a good program. It's fun. I like wrestling out-of-state teams. Different styles. Good challenge for our kids.
Do you plan for specific teams or matchups at The Clash?
Lefebvre: We do some research on them and see where teams are strong. But we're not going to move guys. We have a solid guy at every weight. If we move a guy that means we're opening up a hole, and we really can't move guys out of the lineup. We're pretty well set. We have a real balanced team. We put out a really, really good kid at almost all the weights. I expect in 12 out of the 14 weights the other teams better bring a top-level guy, otherwise we feel that we have a chance to win most of those weights.
Earlier this season you defeated Simley 41-21. What did you learn about your team in that dual meet?
Lefebvre: We learned that we're catching up. The past few years we have wrestled them, and even last year, physically we couldn't compete. Our guys put in a lot of time weight training and they've gotten stronger. We have a lot of guys that work hard in the offseason. They're battle-tested and know what it takes to mentally and physically get through duals like that, and get through tournaments like the Christmas Tournament and The Clash with top-level competition round after round after round. Guys are now used to wrestling in pressure situations more than ever. I would say that victory legitimized our program. It gives your kids more confidence when they can beat a team like Simley.
At the start of the 2009-10 season your program moved up from Class AA to Class AAA, a class that has been dominated by Apple Valley the past couple decades. You lost to Apple Valley in the state finals the past three seasons. How would you characterize the rivalry between St. Michael-Albertville and Apple Valley?
Lefebvre: It's intense. They have a great program. When kids are at Apple Valley they get better. That's why I think kids go to Apple Valley. We feel when kids are in our program they get better year after year too. Each year we have wrestled Apple Valley we've lost by large margins. But last year was the first year I thought that we really competed, and our guys learned that they could physically compete with them, even though we still lost by 25 points. We scored some points on them and we didn't back down. It's been tough. They have been one of the top teams in the nation the last three years. There has been such a disparity in our state in the levels when you go from Apple Valley and then down to the No. 2 team, which happened to be us the last three years. And then there were only about two or three teams that were about at our level, and then there was a big drop again. People didn't want to come and watch the state tournament because they knew the outcome before the tournament started. I think people are now getting a little more excited because we don't know the outcome. It should be exciting.
Currently Minnesota has its dual state tournament the day before the start of the individual state tournament. It used to be mixed in with the individual competition. Do you have an opinion on the current structure?
Lefebvre: I don't like it the way it is now because mainly it's unfair for all the teams competing. If the wrestlers are also in the individual portion of the tournament it's not a fair setup because the guys are competing in three tough duals on Thursday, and then they have to come back right away the next day and start competing in their individual tournament against guys who are not in the dual tournament who have just been worrying about making weight and worrying about the individual tournament. It's not fair physically or mentally. They need to go back to the way it was or they need to move the dual tournament to Saturday. The reason they're not moving it to Saturday is because of money. They don't think they'll have the attendance. The Minnesota State High School League didn't like when we had the state team finals on Saturday after the state individual finals. Almost the entire arena would empty out and go home. They didn't like that. But we're not really looking out for the kids. I just don't think it's a good system for those individuals.
The dual state tournament is now seeded to four teams. Do you feel the individual state tournament should be seeded?
Lefebvre: Yes, I do think the individual tournament should be seeded. We just did it for the Christmas Tournament. It's a similar thing. You have some criteria. Most of the top guys wrestle each other at some point or have some common opponents. At least it separates some of the top guys out, at least in the semifinals, and it doesn't have them meeting in the quarterfinals. It needs to happen. It's time.
Several of your wrestlers compete in the spring, summer, and fall. How important is that to your team's success?
Lefebvre: It's very important. It's a commitment the parents make and the wrestlers make. You can't compete at the top level without that. We've had more and more kids doing that in the last ten years. We won a couple of state titles in 1996 and 1997 with one or two kids doing it, and now we consistently have eight to ten kids doing it. When you get at least half your varsity weights doing that and the other half are playing football or doing other things, we can compete with that. But if they weren't doing that, it would make it difficult to compete at the top level. It's a big commitment for the parents and the wrestlers.
Tommy Thorn won a Junior National freestyle title in Fargo (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)One of your wrestlers, Tommy Thorn, has developed into one of the nation's top lightweights. What's it like coaching Tommy?
Lefebvre: It's a pleasure. Tommy is one of our hardest workers in our wrestling room. Tommy has had some of the best training in the world. He has gone to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He has been trained by some of the best guys here. His brothers and dad are all phenomenal technical wrestlers. A lot of the stuff we teach, particularly at the beginning to the whole team, is stuff he knows. It's basic. It's our STMA stuff that we do. But he gets back and drills it harder than anybody else in the room. He doesn't say, 'Well, I know this stuff.' He knows the basic things that we do win championships. He has become our leader in the way he goes about his business to be a champion. When everybody else comes in the room and looks around and says, 'If our best wrestler works this hard, then that's what we do here.' So we're lucky in that way. And he's talented. He's physically talented and works extremely hard.
People like to compare brothers that compete in the same sport, so it's natural that people compare Tommy to his older brothers Mike and David. Having coached all three brothers, what are some differences you see in Tommy compared to his older brothers?
Lefebvre: Tommy has a little bit of both of those guys. Mike was a creative wrestler. You would be watching him wrestle and you'd go, 'Wow, we never practiced that and I've never seen him do that before, but it worked.' It would be like, 'No, no ... wow, way to go.' He was creative. David was extremely technical. He did things by the book and was very successful with it. Mike was a better mat wrestler. David was more of a takedown wrestler. Tommy has both. He is creative and very technical.
David Thorn moved down to 125 pounds this season for the University of Minnesota. He is currently 6-1 and ranked No. 7. Do you feel 125 pounds is a better fit for him?
Lefebvre: I don't know. Boy, he has to show a lot of discipline to do it. I don't know ... It's tough to say. Yes, if he wins the national title it's the right decision. If not, I don't know. If he becomes an All-American it's probably the right decision. I think it's too early to tell. It's difficult. It's a tough weight cut for him. Hopefully it works out.
Mike Thorn has returned to Minnesota after spending some time in New York. Has he been able to work much with Tommy and/or your team?
Lefebvre: Mike is trying to get his career started in financial advising, so he just comes up once in a while afterwards and wrestles around with the guys. That's kind of his role. He's going to kind of take on a different role with some of our youth kids for now. He's not officially on our coaching staff. Just when it works into his schedule he comes in, kind of like any other alumni for the time being. He might do some offseason things with our guys. He has a young family. Going forward I project that he'll be part of our coaching staff soon. He's valuable. He teaches wrestling really well and works well with kids. But right now he's not officially on our coaching staff. He's trying to get his career started.
Chas Betts, a former STMA wrestler, represented the U.S. at the 2012 Olympic Games (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)One of your former athletes, Chas Betts, represented the United States at the Olympic Games in Greco-Roman this past summer in London. When you coached Betts at the high school level, did you envision that he could someday become an Olympian?
Lefebvre: I could. Greco was his thing. He has always loved it. He is a great athlete. He would want to do Greco-Roman at all times. Particularly when he won a Junior National Greco-Roman title I thought he could do it. He had the drive and enthusiasm for it, but yet the patience for it. His temperament is 'I'm going to keep working and be patient until my time comes.' He had all those things going for him. So it was real exciting. It's neat for our town and our school to have an Olympian. They really got behind him. We had a lot of support for him at his going-away party. It was a neat deal.
St. Michael-Albertville is currently ranked in the top five nationally. What do national rankings mean to your program?
Lefebvre: National rankings give us some notoriety. It's neat. We work with the kids all the time and help them understand that rankings are based on what we have done and what we are predicted to do. We try to keep them level-headed and help them understand that rankings are not exact predictors of our success. We are going to determine that by the way we prepare to win.
How will success be measured this season?
Lefebvre: Our first goal that we have as a team every year is to maximize our abilities and effort every time we step on the mat. If we do that, we think we're good enough to win a state title. However, there are a lot of factors that go into that. We're not going to say our season was a total loss if we don't do that. But if everyone is doing everything they can to prepare to reach that goal, then I think that's a successful season, as we do any year. It gets old being runner-up three years in a row. So, yeah, we would like to win a state title. But that's not going to be the end-all either.
This story also appears in the Dec. 28 issue of The Guillotine. The Guillotine has been covering wrestling in Minnesota since 1971. Its mission is to report and promote wrestling at all levels -- from youth and high school wrestling to college and international level wrestling. Subscribe to The Guillotine.