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November 7, 2008

New NCAA qualifying system puts more on the line for Hokie wrestlers in '08-09

By: Matt Kovatch

Matt EpperlyMatt Epperly was the 2008 most outstanding wrestler at the ACC Championships.

It’s just a simple chart, a white sheet of paper with some numbers on it that are highlighted with a marker. But that it is taped to an office wall just cattycorner from a framed photo of himself as a national champion in 1986 shows just how important those numbers are.

Yes, third-year Virginia Tech head wrestling coach Kevin Dresser looks back fondly on his days as a collegiate star at the University of Iowa, but that photo is just a reminder of what the numbers on that sheet of paper could one day represent.

You see, up until this season (which begins Nov. 9th against George Mason at Cassell Coliseum), the NCAA had an almost archaic method of selecting its postseason participants in the sport of wrestling, relying on historical data to dole out its qualifying bids. It was nothing like how the postseason field is selected in any other sport. The NCAA would look at how a particular conference performed at the NCAA Tournament over the previous five years and then hand out a certain number of qualifiers for that conference accordingly.

“Up until three or four years ago, there was very little money put into the sport of wrestling by ACC programs,” Dresser explained. “But about four years ago, everybody (Maryland, UVa, Virginia Tech, UNC, N.C. State) kind of stepped up to the plate, and it’s shown. ACC wrestlers were going out and competing well at tournaments all year long. Yet when we got to the end of the year, the NCAA was still only giving the conference 14 qualifiers to hand out at the ACC Championships.”

That’s right – 14 spots for the ACC at the NCAA Tournament out of a possible 330. And while that may have been righteous four years ago before the ACC improved by leaps and bounds, it wasn’t fair in 2008. Because the ACC had a weak history, it never got the bids it deserved – even when it began improving, The sample size of ACC wrestlers at the NCAA Tournament never got large enough to make a difference for the following season.

“We’ve got five programs that are putting the same amount of money into wrestling as some Big Ten and Big 12 programs,” Dresser continued. “And now it’s even starting to show on the mat, except we were still getting screwed at the end of the year by not getting any more qualifiers. The Big Ten got to take 72 guys and the ACC took 14. It’s a huge difference.”

Suddenly, Dresser hopped out of his chair and made his way to that chart on the wall, which breaks down the number of qualifiers that each conference received in 2008 compared to the number of qualifiers each conference would have gotten had the new ranking system been in place.

“You can see right here what it would’ve been last year,” he said. “The ACC only got 14 qualifiers, but if this year’s formula would’ve been in effect, the ACC would have qualified 28 – it would’ve doubled. In fact, the conference was so loaded at 184 pounds that first through fifth place at the conference championships would’ve advanced to the NCAA Tournament.”

The ranking system in place for this year will evaluate wrestlers throughout this season only based on winning percentage, a rating percentage index and a coaches’ poll, thus making the postseason qualifiers a much more accurate representation of the best in nation.

It’s a change that came about because of “coaches like us raising hell,” Dresser said. “Before I even got hired here, ACC coaches were going to Maryland AD Debbie Yow (who Dresser credits as the most instrumental person in getting the NCAA’s attention on the matter) and saying, ‘This isn’t fair. We’re trying to build our sport by adding programs instead of dropping them, but we can’t do that without having any qualifiers to attract kids to our conference.’”

Dresser pointed out that while Virginia Tech sent just one wrestler to the postseason last year – 165-pound ACC champion Matt Epperly – it would’ve sent five Hokies, all freshmen, to the NCAA Tournament under the new ranking system. While that was tough to swallow, it’s nice knowing that they could get rewarded more fairly this season.

“We’re excited about that,” Dresser said. “That’s what our sport is all about – getting to the NCAA Tournament.”

The ACC will know how many NCAA qualifiers it gets before the conference championships begin, which makes those championships infinitely more important than a year ago – there is something besides a league crown to fight for now. And guess where the ACC Championships are being held this March? Right in the friendly confines of Tech’s own Cassell Coliseum.

“We talk about that every day in practice,” Dresser said of the excitement of having so much at stake on the Hokies’ home mat. “On paper, we’re probably picked fourth out of six in the ACC (which is where Tech finished in 2008 with a 7-9 record), but I think that if everything jells, we can compete this year. I’m not going to step out any farther than that statement, but I think we can compete hard for that title if everything jells.”

So what is it that needs to jell? Well, pretty much everything, as Dresser said. There’s a very good chance that the Hokies could start freshmen or sophomores in all 10 weight classes – or one junior at the most. Dresser guarantees that no team in Division I wrestling will trot out a younger group of starters, and because of that, he expects to lose some close matches due to inexperience. At the same time, though, that naivety could allow the Hokies to upset some people whom they probably shouldn’t.

While the young Hokies will certainly take their lumps throughout the year, you get the sense that Dresser would take this group of inexperienced grapplers over any other group of the same ilk.

“I know we have more guys right now than we did last year who have bought into what it takes to be good at Division-I wrestling,” Dresser said. “When we sat in front of our team the past two years and said, ‘OK this is what you need to do,’ I think there was a lot of eye rolling and ‘Yeah, right,’ and ‘in one ear and out the other.’ You always have a little bit of that, but we have very little of it right now. It’s about buying into the philosophy and the lifestyle of being a Division-I athlete, and we’ve got that now.

“We as a coaching staff are excited to coach all 10 weight classes because I think we’re looking into the eyes of 10 guys who really want to be here.”

So who are those 10 guys? The headliner, at least based upon last season, is Epperly, who was named the ACC’s Most Outstanding Wrestler for his run through the league championships as a rookie. Tech will look for leadership from him, but also from four other sophomores who were thrown to the wolves as freshmen – 141-pounder Chris Diaz, 184-pounder Tommy Spellman, 197-pounder D.J. Bruce and heavyweight David Marone.

Those five know what to expect now and should be able to help out the new crop of freshmen who might not realize what they’re in for. That group includes: 125-pounders Brock LiVorio and Jarrod Garnett, who are battling it out for the starting role in the lightest weight class, 149-pounder Pete Yates and 157-pounder Jesse Dong.

Rounding out the lineup will be redshirt freshman Anthony Trongone, who looks to be the guy at 174 pounds, and either sophomore Jared Jones or redshirt sophomore Will Livingston (a transfer from Ohio State), who will vie for the 133-pound role.

This group will travel the country competing against teams like Michigan and Nebraska, all in hopes of jelling just in time for the last few weeks of the season before the all-important ACC Championships in Blacksburg. Three of the Hokies’ last four contests take place at home, and Dresser said he planned it that way.

“I did that for a reason,” he admitted. “Hopefully, we can get some momentum from the crowd and some momentum as a team during those matches. That was the whole plan in my mind – to really push toward the end of the year.”

So we know this team will be young, we know it will be talented, and we know it will have its ups and downs. But what is the coaching staff preaching to such a young group? What is the identity of those 10 guys who will take to the mat every meet?

“To be good at an individual sport like wrestling, you have to be really competitive,” Dresser said. “So I hope the mantra among our guys is a competitive one and that they are trying to out-do each other in the practice room, even though they’re not in the same weight class. If we can compete like that, everything should take care of itself.”

Because many of the Hokies still have three or four seasons ahead of themselves to develop under a former national champion like Dresser, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched when he says that he routinely asks his pupils which of them wants to be the first national champion in Virginia Tech wrestling history.

Besides, another framed photo would look a lot nicer on Dresser’s office wall than that white sheet of paper.