Gabe LaVey competing for NC State
On August 18th, it was back to school for students at Averett University in Danville, Virginia. Of course, that included a large contingent of wrestlers seeking to compete for head coach Blake Roulo's Division III program. But, back to school had an entirely different connotation for one of the team's newest faces, Gabe LaVey. As a 28-year-old, who will turn 29 before the start of the season, LaVey is looking to get some form of closure on a journey he started a decade ago at NC State.
This sort of thing happens from time to time at non-DI schools, so why exactly is LaVey's story different from others of this ilk? Well, Gabe has already established himself as one of the top high school and club coaches in the Commonwealth of Virginia. LaVey even has the hardware to prove it, as he was named the state "Club Coach of the Year" at the Cadet/Junior level by VAWA (Virginia's USA Wrestling Chapter). At the high school level, LaVey's Atlee Raiders crowned a pair of 5A state champions and finished as runner-up's in 2021.
In the sometimes cut-throat world of club coaching, LaVey is one of the most respected and well-liked coaches in the state. His Hanover Hawkeye Club, located less than 20 miles from downtown Richmond, is one of the more consistent clubs in the state. They consistently send talented middle schoolers to high school and multiple high school wrestlers to college each year. But amid this success, LaVey has decided to temporarily step away from coaching to return to competition.
Gabe LaVey (right) receiving his VAWA Coach of the Year award from VAWA executive director Jack Harcourt (Photos/Gabe LaVey Instagram)
So who is Gabe LaVey?
Gabe is originally from Spring Grove, Pennsylvania and got into wrestling in seventh grade at the urging of his football coach. A year later, he decided to forget about football and concentrate on wrestling year-round. He appreciated that starters on the wrestling team were determined via wrestle-offs rather than coaches' decisions.
LaVey didn't crack the starting lineup as a freshman but was able to get a ton of mat time and won 30 or 35 bouts. After that school year, he decided to move to the Mechanicsville, Virginia area with his aunt, who could "provide any opportunity I needed."
Wrestling was still a central part of LaVey's life as he assimilated to life in Virginia. Though he initially caught on in the club scene with the Head twins, Dalton and Geoff, a pair of ex-Virginia Tech wrestlers coaching at Hermitage High School, LaVey decided that Hanover High School was a better fit for him socially. It was "more like where I came from" in Pennsylvania.
While LaVey found success in Virginia during his sophomore year of high school (District and Regional champ and fifth in the state), Gabe admits he "struggled against anyone really elite." One of those elite wrestlers that put a beat down on him at the state tournament was Hayfield's Raymond Borja, an eventual NCAA qualifier at the Naval Academy.
During the spring after his sophomore season, LaVey ran into "Big" Joe Dance, father of future Virginia Tech's two-time All-American Joey Dance. They were living in Mechanicsville at the time and recommended LaVey try out a practice at Team Predator.
Ran by JUCO national champion and NCAA Round of 12 finisher for Old Dominion, Mark Strickland, Predator had become "the place" to train in Central Virginia. During his initial visit, LaVey "got the dog piss beat out of me by Strickland" and loved every second of it. He knew immediately that "it was the place I needed to be."
After a slight adjustment to Predator's intense, grueling schedule, LaVey began to flourish. A couple months after finishing 1-2 at the Super 32, LaVey took eighth place at the Beast of the East, defeating a young Zach Epperly (future 2x All-American for Virginia Tech) along the way. That same year, Gabe won a Virginia AAA state title (when there were only three classes).
Interestingly enough, LaVey's regional final in 2010 saw him defeat Deep Run High School's Peyton Walsh in the marquee bout of the evening. Walsh went on to qualify for the NCAA Tournament on three occasions at the Naval Academy and even made the Olympic Trials finals this year in Greco-Roman.
LaVey would call his senior year "not spectacular, but always right there." He was eliminated in the bloodround at the Super 32, the Beast, and NHSCA Senior Nationals. Sandwiched in there was a sixth-place finish at the Ironman. This time, LaVey was on the right side of the Round of 12. He clinched a podium spot by pinning eventual Old Dominion 2x All-American Chris Mecate.
Now that it was time for college, LaVey turned to one of Strickland's roommates from Garden City Community College, Lee Pritts, then an assistant at NC State. When looking at Pritts, LaVey saw many similarities to Strickland in terms of their intensity and technique. He also loved how, "if you were one of Pritts' guys, he'd go to war for you." Year one in Raleigh was about as expected. While LaVey had some of the usual freshman struggles, on and off the mat, overall, he felt like it was a good year.
That offseason, the NC State brass decided a leadership change was necessary and Pat Popolizio was hired from Binghamton. In our recent feature about the rise of Popolizio during his early days at Binghamton, he noted that he needed a culture change and controlled the times the Bearcats trained, aiming for early-morning workouts. A similar situation occurred at NC State and the new head coach came in "with the intention of cleaning house," said LaVey. "He obviously wanted to create a new environment, which he did and did well."
This was difficult for LaVey to comprehend while he was in the heat of the moment as a student-athlete. Looking back, with his coaching experience, LaVey understands why such changes were necessary.
At the time, LaVey made the decision to give the new staff a shot. Though he followed the rules, the experience wasn't the same and wrestling was more like a job than ever better. He even questioned his love for the sport.
Once winter break rolled around and LaVey went back home, he decided he was done with wrestling at NC State. He would finish the spring semester and explore transfer opportunities. Unfortunately, LaVey admits he didn't do everything he needed academically to transfer and couldn't latch on anywhere else.
That forced Gabe to return home to Mechanicsville, where he worked construction and assisted at the club and high school level, but was just generally "kinda lost." As luck would have it, LaVey was offered a head coaching position with the Hanover Hawkeye club. Knowing the level of maturity he'd need to demonstrate to the young kids looking up to him, LaVey spent the entire summer living in the Outer Banks (NC) and "partying my butt off. I had to get it all out of my system. I knew what I would expect out of my coaches if I was one of those kids." After the summer in the Outer Banks, LaVey has been 100% committed to Hanover Hawkeye.
As with most people, living in 2020 under Covid conditions, things changed for LaVey. He decided to take some classes part-time, along with his job at the local middle school and his various coaching responsibilities. Limited time for classes was frustrating and Gabe figured "it would be much faster going full-time." And he could wrestle! Also, he didn't have to look too far to find inspiration, in terms of an older guy returning to college.
In 2020-21, Alex Turley (older brother of Rutgers AA Jackson) enrolled at Averett as a 26-year-old freshman. Turley went 20-3 overall and finished seventh and earned All-American honors at the NWCA National Tournament. Turley, along with Averett head coach Blake Roulo and LaVey, all trained together at Team Predator. LaVey and Turley were actually in the same regional weight class in 2011. He won that bracket, along with a state title, while Turley was third in the region. Seeing Turley's success made Gabe think, "I can do that too."
Overall, LaVey isn't too concerned about the transition on the mat back to competing. "I've been on the mat six or seven days a week since I left school, between private workouts, practices, and camps. Deep waters are where I need to go." The main focal point this summer was working on his mobility and cardio-type workouts.
LaVey did have a setback over the summer working out with the University of Virginia's volunteer assistant Jack Mueller. He suffered an upper injury which prevented him from getting on the mat until last week.
Gabe LaVey with his Hanover Hawkeye wrestlers at Fargo in 2019 (Gabe LaVey Instagram)
Now that you know a little bit about Gabe LaVey, you probably have some of the same questions that I had about his return to the mat.
As someone who is in their late 20's, what is your living situation like? Will you stay in the dorms?
Originally, Gabe had the idea to "convert a van into a tiny home and live in it. It would be useful for late on while I do camps and such." Unfortunately, that van idea did not come to fruition and LaVey has taken a more conventional route of renting a room in house with a teammate and an ex-baseball player.
How will the relationship between yourself and head coach Blake Roulo work out?
"We'll have to see. We've been teammates and friends in the past; I think I'm actually older than him. (Blake is 28). But he trusts me. I want to take on a leadership role in the room and help out in any way I can. I think it will be a healthy relationship and a smooth transition."
Having coached at the club level for years and being active coaching on state-level teams, how will you feel possibly competing against kids you previously worked with?
"They're gonna get it. I'm gonna treat them the same as anyone else. I'd expect them to do the same."
What weight will you go?
"Still undecided, but leaning toward 149. I sit around 152, but can fluctuate. We'll see what the hydration tests say. I'm not sure how I feel about cutting weight for an extended period at almost 30, but 141 is a possibility."
What happens to Hanover Hawkeyes while you are at Averett?
3x Division III All-American Kevin Donahue of Cornell College has assumed head coaching responsibilities. Donahue is also a Mechanicsville native and wrestled in high school at St. Christopher's in Richmond. Outside of the actual season, LaVey plans to make the almost-three hour commute on the weekends and help out at the Sunday practices at Hanover Hawkeye. Since he recently purchased a house in the area, he doesn't intend on selling.
How will your mentality change from being the athlete as opposed to being the coach?
"I'm going in with an open mind. It will be different being the athlete every single day and focusing on myself rather than planning practices and such. I'll get to focus on what I need to do rather than everyone else. It will probably be kind of a relief."
Do you see yourself being a better/smarter wrestler now getting to compete after years of coaching others?
"Oh yeah. As a coach, I worked with anyone from beginners to Evan Buchanan (three-time state champion currently at the University of Virginia). Before, as an athlete, I was just doing things by muscle memory. But having to break down the little details and explain them to little kids, those were details I never thought about while I was wrestling. Now I have a much better feel on the mat."
What's the endgame? What do you hope to achieve at Averett?
"Just to see what I got. It's an opportunity to prove to myself that I can do it. I can get on the podium...on the top. I always thought I could do it….why not now?"
Throughout the year, we'll follow up with Gabe and Averett to document his return to the mat.