I recently had the opportunity to sit down with one of Loyola’s wrestling greats, Matt Picchietti ’97, for a candid interview about his past as a wrestler, coach and his experiences at Loyola and in college. This interview is the first in a series of interviews to come. With the Chicago Catholic League Tournament in our rear view mirror, I thought it would be great to sit down and talk some wrestling with the 2x CCL Champ and 3x finalist. Matt was also a 3x state qualifier and is arguably the best wrestler in Loyola History. Enjoy the read and make sure to keep your eyes out for more interviews in the next few weeks leading up and through the State tournament.
STEPHENS: Thanks for taking the time to meet with me and discuss your past and your experiences at Loyola as a wrestler and a coach.
PICCHIETTI: Absolutely, Chris. Loyola wrestling has always been a huge part of my life.
STEPHENS: You had the opportunity to wrestle for Loyola Academy as well as come back and be the head coach of the program for several years. Now you help coach the kids youth wrestling club at The Academy. Tell us a little about what Loyola Wrestling means to you & where you envision it going?
PICCHIETTI: Loyola Academy is a great place. People like Br. Dave Henderson, John Hoerster, and Rick Miller were essential figures in my life at that time. That means a lot to me. When I started wrestling, the rest of my life started to make sense. School became easier. I got more confidence. I understood hard work and humility and learned how to learn from losing. All of that matters in real life. Teaching that to kids who might serve as the foundation for future Rambler wrestling teams, well, that matters to me. The team looks good. There have been recent state qualifiers and LA’s first place winner, so I hope things keep improving.
STEPHENS: When was it that you started wresting?
PICCHIETTI: I was 10. We just moved to Nebraska and one of the guys working for my dad was a kid’s club coach and that was that. I was hooked from day one.
STEPHENS: What was your greatest memory wrestling for Loyola?
PICCHIETTI: Man, that’s tough. The strongest memories are the losses. One that I love is from my sophomore year at the Dick Mudge Invitational at Prospect. I made it to the finals against a senior 189 pounder from Prospect who had bumped up a weight class thinking he would win it. I smashed him 8-2. As I was getting my medal, his coach asked where I was wrestling next year. I told him I was sophomore. His guy was going to wrestling at Indiana. I think that is when I knew I could do pretty well.
STEPHENS: What was your greatest accomplishment as a wrestler (high school & college)?
PICCHIETTI: Earning Academic All American honors at St. Olaf. That was a tough school and it mattered to me that I did more than just graduate.
STEPHENS: Entering Loyola as a freshman which was your senior year, you were always someone that I looked up to. Who were some of the guys that were role models for you that you looked up to earlier in your career?
PICCHIETTI: Creighton Prep, the team I wrestled for as a freshman, sent ten guys to state that year. I had plenty of people to look up to. Ben Perkins and Ben Petersen were, I think, both state champs, Perkins for sure. He won three times. Petersen was a senior when I was a freshman and he was my wrestling partner most days. Perkins was 152 pounder who could destroy anyone in the room. I have never seen anyone so smooth on his feet.
STEPHENS: You have been inducted in to Loyola’s athletic hall of fame for wrestling and were one heck of a football player. You had first decided to attend the University of Iowa to play football. After your freshman year, you transferred to St Olaf in Minnesota to wrestle. Why did you originally chose football? What made you ultimately chose wrestling?
PICCHIETTI: If I could do it all over, I would have sent football film to the bottom 25 division I football programs. As a junior, I started getting calls from Big Ten schools about football so that is what I thought I was. My goal was not to pay for school and I thought football was the way to go. There are not a whole lot of wrestling scholarships out there. When I got to Iowa, I immediately saw that I was out of my league. These guys were just as fast and strong as me and whole lot bigger. It was a humbling experience. I knew the wrestling coach at Olaf a little and I went for a visit. I loved the school and decided to transfer. It was a good decision.
STEPHENS: In HS, you were a 3 sport varsity athlete (Football, Wrestling, Track & Field), state qualifier in wrestling and track and the Prep Bowl MVP in football. It is very rare that you see a 3-sport varsity athlete at all in today’s high schools. Why do you think that is? Do you think it is possible in today’s era for that to happen?
PICCHIETTI: Sports are supposed to be fun. I had fun with all of those teams and I learned something different from all of those coaches. The greatest benefit of not specializing was learning how to compete in different situations. Football is the ultimate team sport, but two of my best games as an individual came in losses. Wrestling is the ultimate combat sport. One-on-one and no excuses. Discus requires total focus and attention to detail. Body control mattered more than anything. All of those were different kinds of competition, different kinds of pressures and they all, I think, made me better. It’s hard to learn how to compete when you are not competing in anything for one or two seasons. I think parents are pressured, stupidly, to encourage their kids to put all their eggs in one basket. I do not think you will see 3-sport guys for 4 years during high school, but I’d like to see 3-sport athletes during their first two years at least. If there is something they really want to focus on after that, great, but give yourself two years to compete as much as possible.
STEPHENS: There are wrestling programs all across the state losing participants to other sports, i.e. football, lacrosse, hockey, baseball… Wrestling is a no-cut sport while these other sports have cuts or the possibility of not getting any playing time if the athlete doesn’t participate in off-season training. What are your thoughts? Do you feel that there are certain sports that compliment each other?
PICCHIETTI: Wrestling and football go together like a wink and a smile. Any success I had in football was due to my wrestling foundation. Wrestling is too hard for a lot of people. Most people quit because it is easy to get embarrassed and there is no place to hide when you get destroyed in front of your friends and family on a wrestling mat. Baseball and lacrosse don’t really have that kind of personal risk, and neither does any team or timed sport. Wrestling puts your whole ego on the line every time you stem on that mat. Most people do not want to do that.
STEPHENS: What is most significant about the culture of wrestling in your opinion? Is this promoted at LA?
PICCHIETTI: You have to be fearless in that, to be a good wrestler, you cannot be afraid to lose. The Academy is a competitive place. Academically, socially, athletically we are all taught that losing is unacceptable. And losing because of lack of effort is totally unacceptable, but there is a lot of learning involved with losing. If you give your best at something, if you perform flawlessly and to the best of all of your abilities, that may not be good enough to win a match, or get into the school you wanted to, or to land the job or promotion you wanted. That’s life and that is a great lesson. That is also the kind of things that parents and teachers tend not to say. Does that answer the question?
STEPHENS: Absolutely. Thanks for your honesty! Would you like to see anything change with the wrestling culture here at Loyola?
PICCHIETTI: I’d like to see more people who enjoy the battle. There are a few, but it would more fun to see room full of grinning maniacs all trying to out do each other all of the time. I’ve been in rooms like that. When the whole room is in that zone, the improvement to technique and team chemistry is incredible.
STEPHENS: Would you ever consider coming back to coach in the program?
PICCHIETTI: My current job involves a lot of travel, so probably not in the near future, but you never say never.
STEPHENS: How would you say high school wrestling has evolved since you participated?
PICCHIETTI: Kids have better technique and ate better conditioned, but that is normal evolution. Social media has changed the game. With matches going on-line, wrestlers can pick up advanced techniques from other countries at the click of a button. Remember The Flying Squirrel? That became an internet and ESPN sensation for a while. That has changed recruiting and teaching for the better.
STEPHENS: Would you like to see any changes made to the wrestling program?
PICCHIETTI: I think things are on the right track. The coaches are getting the most they can out of the talent they have. Why change that. That is good coaching.
STEPHENS: What are some goals (long term and short term) you would like to see accomplished by LA wrestling?
PICCHIETTI: Having three or four guys a year at the state tournament would be a great accomplishment. If that happens, then one or two guys a year would have an opportunity at placing down state. LA has too many great athletes not to have a state place winner every year.
STEPHENS: How active are you in following the sport at a high school level (or any level) since participating in it?
PICCHIETTI: With my career change, I’ve been out of the loop. I’ll catch a Big Ten Dual on TV or the NCAA Finals, but that’s about it. I don’t even know the new high school weight classes.
STEPHENS: How would you like to see Loyola wrestling program expand its horizons?
PICCHIETTI: More football players, particularly B-team and JV guys on the team. If those guys wrestled, even for two years, a huge majority of them would be starters by the time they were juniors.
STEPHENS: There is no doubt that you have one of the greatest and most decorated resume in Loyola Academy history. You were a 2x CCL Champ, 3x finalist. 2x state qualifier. You had the most varsity wins in Loyola history until that was broken (not including your freshman year where you wrestled varsity as a freshman in Nebraska) all at the Heavyweight weight class. You are arguably one of the best if not the greatest Rambler Wrestler of all time. If you were to pick the top 5 wrestlers in Loyola history, who would they be?
- 1. Michael Paloian gets the top spot for performing the best on the biggest stage and becoming Loyola’s only State place-winner.
2. Pat Dougherty was in a brutal weight class, but could have placed at state as well.
3. I guess I would probably put myself at #3
4. Chris Schultz was one of the only Sectional Champions in Loyola history, was a match away from placing at the state tournament and is a fellow Hall of Famer. Not to mention my golf partner in last year’s golf outing, which was a blast!
5. Tom Kelly was also 1 match away from placing at the state tournament. He had the best defense of any LA wrestler and was almost impossible to take down.
I may be a little biased with my picks and I do not know the history as well as I should. There were tough guys in the 80’s, 70’s, and 60’s I’m sure and their list would look different. Ideally, the best wrestler LA has ever had is either walking the halls now or he will be soon.
STEPHENS: Matt, I would like to thank you very much for taking the time to meet with me for this interview. It was a pleasure to be a teammate of yours, coach with you and be your friend for over a decade. The Loyola Wrestling community appreciates all that you have done for the wrestling program and the Rambler Wrestling Club. Thanks for your continued support.
PICCHIETTI: Thank you for this opportunity and good luck with the rest of the season! GO RAMBLERS!