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MSU wrestler uses bond with high school coach to improve, inspire

March 19, 2018
Freshman RayVon Foley wrestled with Indiana junior Elijah Oliver on March 3, 2018 at Breslin Center during session one of the Big Ten Wrestling Championship. Foley defeated Oliver, 14-3. (Annie Barker | State News)
Freshman RayVon Foley wrestled with Indiana junior Elijah Oliver on March 3, 2018 at Breslin Center during session one of the Big Ten Wrestling Championship. Foley defeated Oliver, 14-3. (Annie Barker | State News) —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

When true freshman Rayvon Foley walked through the doors of Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School four years ago, he weighed 82 pounds and had a difficult home life. But his determination and the help of high school coach Bill Petoskey took him to a place as a top wrestler in one of the most rigorous wrestling conferences, the Big Ten.

Foley competed March 15 at the NCAA Wrestling Championships in Cleveland and lost two minor decisions to seeded and experienced opponents. This came after Foley finished seventh in the Big Ten Championships. Though Petoskey is no longer Foley's coach and is an adamant University of Michigan fan, he sports green-and-white in support of Foley at his matches.

Developing a bond

“I’ve known Ray since he was in sixth grade, I’ve coached him since then,” Petoskey said. “I’ve spent a lot of time all the way through high school coaching him.” 

As a freshman in high school, wrestling at the 103-pound weight class but with a 20-pound disadvantage, Foley still managed to finish the season with a winning record, 28-23. But he was not satisfied with just being good enough.

“That part was difficult for him, because a lot of kids in school didn’t take him seriously,” Petoskey said of the Class A high school that has produced dozens of Division 1 athletes. 

Foley sought out every possible opportunity to improve, raising money to go compete in national tournaments at the high school level. Out of the three months of summer vacation, Foley often spent two full months competing. 

“Most kids wouldn’t do what Rayvon did,” Petoskey said. “Both his junior and sophomore years. ... He would wrestle at the level above him and go on the team nationals a level above. ... He did that one year and got an extra 20 matches, and that made him mentally and physically tough. He ate it up, too.”

This desire to improve was spurred, in part, by a trip with Petoskey to see the Big Ten wrestling championships in Madison, Wisconsin. Trips like this brought the two closer together.

“He really helped me develop because I didn’t have a father,” Foley said. “He was around, and he took some of those fatherly roles that I didn’t have.” 

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Discussions between the two veered from in-depth wrestling technique to deep sociopolitical and racial issues. While the two both grew up in Ann Arbor, they said they had very different upbringings economically and socially, and those differences were reflected in these long conversations.

“The issue of not standing up for the national anthem, a couple of times I had to deal with that with Rayvon, and that got pretty heated,” Petoskey said. “My dad fought in World War II, but I understood a lot from where Rayvon was coming from.” 

Foley, a political science major, said he  deeply believes in the importance of empowering young black people.

“I think black youth need to understand how important it is to get out,” Foley said. “A lot of them are struggling. It may not seem like it because Ann Arbor is a nice city, but that’s how it is. It’s always been like that for black people everywhere. Nice areas, but they’re struggling.” 

After his summers of wrestling non-stop, his work paid off with a state championship in 2017 in the 119-lb weight class. He defeated current University of Michigan Wolverine Drew Mattin, as well as two-time defending champion Michael Mars of Westland John Glenn High School. 

“When he won the state championship, Ray came and stayed the night with me,” Petoskey said. “He’s got quite a good bond with my wife and my daughter. ... We celebrated together. Our family is sort of like his second family.” 

This state championship, along with Foley's physical maturation, led MSU head wrestling coach Roger Chandler to offer him a scholarship.

“Rayvon was a bit under the radar, only because he was a little bit smaller than everybody coming through high school, so we weren’t sure if he’d even be big enough for the lightest weight class in college wrestling,” Chandler said. “We kept track of him throughout his senior year, and at that point, we made a full-fledged effort to make Rayvon a Spartan.” 

Competing as a Spartan

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Since he arrived in East Lansing, Foley has been successful, posting the best record on the team this season. He credits other athletes, including basketball player Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr., with helping him develop mentally.

"I’ve had conversations with him about mental things and mental tools,” Foley said. “I’ve just tried to learn from everybody. ... I have definitely developed as an athlete in general, not just in the sport of wrestling.” 

Fellow freshman Jwan Britton, a 149-pounder from Muskegon, said he believes Foley’s will to succeed is his best trait. 

“When he sets his mind to something, no one can change his mind if he truly believes in it," Britton said. "No matter what he’s going through, he still meets his goals.” 

Petoskey, who wrestled for five years at University of Michigan, always believed in Foley’s ability, even when college coaches around the country dismissed him because of his size.

“I knew from coaching Ray that he had the ability do well in the Big Ten, I knew he had all the tools, I just didn’t know exactly how it was going to unfold for him,” Petoskey said.

His dedication, Petoskey said, made him the national qualifier that he is today.

“He would sometimes workout early, and sometimes he would stay late,” he said. “I had a table in the wrestling room for kids to do homework, not that he did a lot of homework, but he would definitely come down and spend at least an hour before practice in the wrestling room. ... The wrestling room was like a second home to him.”

Petoskey has coached at Pioneer for years, but said his relationship with Foley was unique. 

“It was a deeper relationship than just a wrestler and a coach,” he said. “It went farther than that. ... We developed a pretty special relationship. I don’t want to say it was a father and son role, but it was deep, it was trust and a good relationship both ways.” 

Foley’s relationship with Petoskey has led him to be vocal and upfront with the college coaching staff as well, something Chandler appreciates.

“He’s worn off on the rest of the guys on the team. It’s an infectious attitude,” Chandler said. “Rayvon will discuss anything with you. If I say, ‘Hey, you should shoot a single-leg (takedown), he’ll say, ‘Maybe I should shoot a high-crotch.’ He analyzes everything. There’s not one certain approach that works for him, he’s kind of able to adjust on the fly.”

Petoskey, whose family is littered with Wolverines, said he feels pride in wearing MSU wrestling shirts in support of Rayvon.

“Just getting him to where he’s competing at this level is a great experience for me,” he said. “Rayvon is only 18, and competing at this level at such a young age is pretty unique, and it’s pretty exciting.” 

Foley said his high school coach supported him to get to the place he is today.

“He has been with me since I first started wrestling when I was 10 years old,” Foley said. “He’s been very special, very father-like. He’s done a lot for me financially, emotionally, psychologically, physically, building me up as a person, because I don’t think I would be as strong as I am if it wasn’t for Bill.” 

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