Notorious Pinner Justin Lister Looks for Another “Cinderella” NCAA Run
By Betsy Veysman
During his internships with the campus and state police, future law enforcement agent Justin Lister has learned quite a bit about protecting and serving the public.
For the next week, however, he is far more interested in putting people in danger.
“To me, Justin Lister is one of the most dangerous wrestlers in the country because he can pin you from any position,” Binghamton head coach Pat Popolizio said. “You make a mistake with him and he will capitalize.”
“It’s the name of the game in this sport,” Lister, who has 38 career pins, added. “I have a great time thinking of ways to put people on their backs and once they’re there, I keep them there. I think I have a natural killer instinct. Once I smell blood, I get after it.”
Fittingly, it was a pair of falls at the 2010 NCAA tournament that helped introduce wrestling fans around the country to Lister.
He entered nationals with a solid 28-8 record and a CAA title, but was unseeded and a relative unknown. His first round opponent, Oklahoma State’s Neil Erisman, had beaten Lister in their only two meetings.
The Rodman, NY native came out determined to get revenge and he did, earning a 3-0 decision. In his second match, he avenged another earlier setback against Thomas Scotton of North Carolina.
“I couldn’t accept losing to the same guys again,” he said. “I controlled those matches from the beginning and won handily.”
That set up a quarterfinal meeting with the number three seed, Jesse Dong of Virginia Tech.
“Going into the match, I thought to myself that Jesse Dong and I were the two youngest people in the weight class,” Lister said. “There was no way he did more work than me and I didn’t care where he was ranked. I felt like I deserved it every bit as much as he did.”
With that attitude, Lister made quick work of the Hokie, getting the fall in just over a minute.
“That win was a great relief,” he said. “Going into college, my main goal was to be an All-American. That sealed the deal. I was ecstatic. But then, I came back to wrestle the semis and got my doors blown in by [Cal Poly’s] Chase Pami.”
After the semifinal loss by major decision to Pami, Lister felt once again that he had something to prove when he faced Penn State’s Cyler Sanderson.
“I wanted to show that it wasn’t a fluke. I wanted to show that I deserved to be an All-American,” he said. “There was no one better to prove that against than the brother of a legend. I tore him up, slapped the cradle on him and pinned him. That was the most memorable match for me because I felt like I did it with authority. I truly believed that I belonged.”
After a loss in his final match of the tournament, Lister took fourth place, an outcome that shocked many around the country. But Popolizio wasn’t one of them.
“Justin caught a lot of people off guard,” the coach said. “I knew he had it in him. He had the ability and the work ethic, but it takes a special person to make a run at NCAAs. He’s a gamer who rose to the occasion.”
After his postseason run, Lister came into the 2010-11 season near the top of the rankings at 157 pounds. But some changes were on the way.
“Justin struggled a little bit mentally and physically early on,” he said. “Going to 165 pounds recharged his battery.”
“It wasn’t easy making 157 so when my coach told me I could eat more, I was happy to make the change,” Lister added. “I wrestled halfway decent throughout the year.”
He did better than “halfway decent” in the second part of the season, when he seemed to find his rhythm at his new weight. He registered quality victories over wrestlers such as Iowa State’s Andrew Sorenson and despite entering the CAA tournament as the fourth seed, captured his second consecutive conference title, including a triumph over future All-American PJ Gillespie of Hofstra.
It appeared he was ready for another magical postseason. Again unseeded, Lister began with a 2-1 win over Appalachian State’s Kyle Blevins in round one. But he then ran into Nebraska’s Jordan Burroughs. The future World Champion had his way with Lister early and, to add injury to insult, Lister severely hurt his ankle and had to default.
“I was just outmanned by Burroughs,” he said. “He grabbed me and threw me wherever he wanted.” During the match, Lister suffered what was later diagnosed as a high ankle sprain with a crack above the joint.
He said walking was a challenge, but he was determined to compete in his consolation match anyway. Iowa’s Aaron Janssen eliminated Lister from nationals by technical fall.
“Taking an injury default would have been the easy way out,” he said. “There were lots of eyes on me, people expecting me to do great things. I gave it my all. I think I gained respect from my coach and my teammates. I proved my mental toughness to myself even though it didn’t go the way I wanted.”
It took several months for Lister to recover. He said he finally was back to about 90% by mid-summer. As soon as he was ready, he got back to working in the room with some of the partners who have contributed to his success, Donnie Vinson (the fourth seed at 149 pounds) and former NCAA qualifier Matt Kaylor.
“The three of us get after it so hard, we wind up hurting each other,” he said. “We have to work earlier in the week so we’re ok by the time the competition comes. Let’s just say, it gets pretty heated quickly.”
Lister, Kaylor and the coaches determined that the team was best served with Lister back at 157 and Kaylor at 165 for the 2011-12 campaign.
“157 is where Justin has his best shot at a national title,” Popolizio said. “His style of wrestling fits best with guys that are a little smaller, where he can use his height for leverage.”
The senior captain compiled a 26-5 record during the season while working through some injuries. After a tight win over returning All-American Walter Peppelman of Harvard at the Binghamton Open in November, Lister sustained his first loss against Cornell’s Kyle Dake, 6-2. He then went on a winning streak before dropping 3 of 4 in late January/early February. Afterwards, he recovered to win the remainder of his matches, including his third CAA crown.
“I think he’s had a very successful season,” Popolizio said. “He’s had a few letdowns and a couple of losses that could have gone his way. Actually, every match he’s lost except one, he was leading into the third and had a mental lapse and was taken down at the end to lose. Sometimes the best way to learn is to be defeated and readjust. The good thing is, he understands the mistakes he made and those losses motivated him.”
Another big motivator for Lister is contributing to the rise of the Bearcat program. When he arrived on campus, things were very different than they are today.
“There wasn’t much respect for wrestlers when I first got here,” he said. “Now, the professors work with us and our schedule. Now, we go into a local Subway or Walmart, and people know us. Binghamton is becoming a wrestling community. It’s only been a few years and so much has changed. We used to have 20 or 30 people at duals and now we get around 1000.”
The crowd was that large when a pair of top notch teams, Oklahoma and Cornell, came to town for dual meets in January. Both meets came down to the wire, and although the Bearcats came out on the short end, they demonstrated that they have entered the upper echelon of college wrestling. Binghamton sported an impressive 15-4 dual record overall.
“It is such a joy to see our season come together the way it did,” Lister said. “We proved our worth as a Division I program. I feel more pride about being the captain of this team for the past three years than about my individual success.”
According to Popolizio, Lister has been an integral part of Binghamton’s emergence.
“Justin has elevated this program with his attitude, work ethic and confidence,” Popolizio said. “He didn’t have guys before him to show the way. We’re not the same program without him, no question about it. Others can follow his footsteps.”
This week, he will try to follow the footsteps he made back in Omaha in the 2010 NCAAs.
“Hopefully, there will be another Cinderella story this year,” he said. “I definitely want to pin some more people. I’m not looking past anyone, but I would really like a rematch with Kyle Dake. I’d like to take his #1 seed and run it to the finals. I’ve been dreaming of running out for the finals in the green corner for months now. I want it for myself, everyone in the program, the community and my family. There would be nothing sweeter than ending on such a high note.”