LEWISBURG — Kevin LeValley knew things were going to be different this year. He knew when he walked into the practice room for the first time, the members of the Bucknell wrestling team were going to be looking at him, watching, waiting to be led.
And with guys like Dave Marble, Andy Rendos and Shane Riccio, the keystones of revival of the program, all graduated, it was LeValley who they looked to.
It was a difficult transition for the senior from Colorado, but one that he has seemed to relish. LeValley, a returning All-American for the Bison, is one of the top wrestlers in the entire country and with a favorable postseason schedule the 149-pounder has his sights set on becoming Bucknell's first NCAA wrestling champion.
There is a long way to go between now and the first and third weekends in March, two weekends which won't define LeValley's career, but most definitely could be one of the highlights.
Change at the top
When the wrestling program was reinstated at Bucknell, LeValley came in as part of Dan Wirnsberger's second recruiting class. He followed the likes of Rendos — a two-time America — and Marble and Riccio, who both went to NCAAs multiple times.
Now those three are all gone. LeValley has tried to carry on their legacy as best he can. He is certainly doing his part on the mat, winning 19 of 20 bouts this year and ranking in the top six in all the national rankings. LeValley's other role, that as the team leader, is one he is still adjusting to.
"It is certainly different not having them around this year," said LeValley, a four-time prep champion in Colorado. "They were the leaders of the team for four years, including the three years I was with them."
As the most experienced and decorated member of the team — he was seventh at NCAAs last year and ninth at the University World Games last fall — the leadership role falls to LeValley now. He admired the trio of graduated seniors and now uses a little bit of all of them in his own leadership style.
"I try to take a little from each of them," he said. "Riccio was light-hearted and always talking. Marble was really intense, every day, and it rubbed off. Rendos led by example.
"I want to use all of that to help the program."
Among the best
LeValley heads into Friday night's home dual against Old Dominion at 19-1 this year. He won his first 17 matches before losing to Rutgers' Mario Mason, ranked fifth nationally, in overtime last week. LeValley is 6-1 against ranked opponents this year after winning nine such bouts a year ago.
In the past two seasons, LeValley is a remarkable 61-9 — with eight of his nine losses coming to ranked foes. He won a school-record 42 matches last year on his way to All-America honors.
He enters Friday's match with a career mark of 112-38, which ranks him third in school history in wins. He is six shy of tying Lewisburg High grad Bobby Ferraro (118) and should surpass Rendos' school record of 121 wins set last year.
LeValley has accomplished all that while facing some of the best competition in the nation. He became Bucknell's first-ever champion at the prestigious Midlands Championships in late December. He also has two wins over Edinboro's Torsten Gillespie, ranked 12th, including one at the NWCA All-Star Classic.
While those are resume-building accomplishments, LeValley looks at it another way.
"Those are program accomplishments to me," the education major said. "They are both such unique events and it's a great indicator on how far we've come as a program. We continue to reach new heights every year and we want it to continue."
LeValley said his bouts against the nation's best — he owns wins over then-No. 6 Kurt Kinser of Indiana and No. 7 Jamal Parks of Oklahoma State — have prepared him for what he hopes is a big finish.
"I know there are a lot of tough guys out there, and that's what makes me train so hard every day," he said. "I keep in my mind things I need to work on for when I face them. I visualize what I need to do against them, even in practice."
The work in the room and the visualization obviously work. In his 20 bouts this year, LeValley has allowed less than three points to 17 opponents, including six ranked foes.
With the end of his collegiate career in sight, LeValley feels like he is inching toward his peak. He also feels like the way the postseason schedule breaks down will also help his chances.
Bucknell will host the EIWA Championships for the first time in school history March 5-6. Then the NCAAs are two weeks later in Philadelphia.
That means LeValley and his teammates won't have to leave Pennsylvania for the postseason. A year ago EIWA's were at Lehigh and nationals were in Nebraska.
"It's a huge advantage to have EIWAs here," said LeValley. "It's right in our back yard. I'll get to jump in my own bed at night. Brush my teeth in my own bathroom. That's huge.
"I can't think of a better way to cap my career than having EIWAs here. It means a lot for this program."
While having EIWAs at home, LeValley is also focused on nationals. He is working with Marble, now an assistant coach, on a daily basis, with hopes of setting his training regime so he can be his best when it matters the most.
"It's important to peak the first and third weekends in March," he said. "You don't want to peak too early, don't break down. You have to beat at your best for that time of the year. That's the ultimate goal."
— Sports editor Bill Bowman covers college sports for The Daily Item. E-mail comments to email@example.com.