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April 7, 2009

Tech wrestling puts itself on the NCAA map with eight participants at national championships

By: Matt Kovatch

Heavyweight David Marone and 141-pounder Chris Diaz (not pictured) each won three matches at the NCAA Championships, just missing out on All-America status.

When the Virginia Tech wrestling team bowed out of the NCAA Championships a day early on March 20, it did more than just put a close to a very successful season – it put a big orange and maroon pin in the national wrestling map.

Just one year removed from a 7-9 overall record and a tie for last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Hokies suddenly mattered in the world of singlets and headgear. No longer a team to be overlooked, the Hokies steamrolled through the regular season with a 20-2 overall mark and an unblemished 5-0 in the ACC.

Wrestling pundits started taking notice. The Hokies were ranked 14th in the polls as the regular season concluded, with several individuals being ranked among the top 20 in their respective weight classes. Freshman 125-pounder Jarrod Garnett was voted the ACC’s rookie of the year, and the NCAA selection committee awarded Tech with two wildcard entries into the national meet after the Hokies had six automatically qualified already.

So just think how head coach Kevin Dresser felt when he pulled up to the Scottrade Center in St. Louis with a van full of Hokies as opposed to the one wrestler he accompanied to the national meet a year ago.

“It was definitely exciting,” Dresser said of having a full team at the national meet. “From a coaching standpoint, we were really busy all through Thursday and Friday [March 19 and 20], having eight guys out there. Of course, we lost our last two guys in the All-America round on Friday night, and the only thing that could be finer would to be to be busy on Saturday, too. It was definitely a big change from a coaching perspective. We wrestled two matches out there last year, and this year we had over 20. It’s progress and it’s baby steps, but it’s a good feeling.”

A good feeling that even Dresser wouldn’t admit to expecting back when this long season began in early November. Eight Hokies at the national championships?

“I’m greedy, but I think we would have been tickled to death in November to know that we would qualify eight guys,” he conceded. “We would have been ecstatic. I was very disappointed on Friday night [March 20] that we didn’t get an All-American, but that’s probably just the greedy side of me. We made great progress individually and we made great progress as a program. We put ourselves on the map nationally. Virginia Tech is definitely a Division-I wrestling program.”

When you’ve sent eight guys to the national championships and you can reasonably expect every one of them back there next year, it is indeed safe to say that you’re on the map. Of the eight Hokies who wrestled in St. Louis this year, not one is an upperclassman, with four being freshmen and four being sophomores. Dresser expects Tech to improve upon its 39th-place team finish in 2010.

“I don’t care who you are – the first time you go there and there are 17,000 people screaming at you and you’re not used to that – it takes your breath away a little bit,” Dresser said. “We shouldn’t be intimidated next year. We had a few guys who were a little stage-struck this year, but we should be over that. As a Division-I wrestler, when you mentally know that you can wrestle at that level and you’ve been there and done that, great things happen.”

Great things certainly will happen if the Hokies can build on this year’s experience in the offseason. Here’s a look at how each Hokie who made the trip to St. Louis fared, along with Dresser’s thoughts on each wrestler:

125 pounds: Jarrod Garnett (2-2)

First round: def. Nick Bedelyon (Kent St.), 4-3
Second round: lost to No. 3 seed Angel Escobedo (Indiana), 2-1
Consolations: def. Prescott Garner (Navy), 18-5 (MD)
Consolations: lost to Obe Blanc (Oklahoma State), 17-4
Dresser’s take: “Jarrod has been a pleasant surprise all year long. He was 2-2 at the nationals and I think he knows what he’s got to do. We’ll see how hard he approaches the offseason. I think he knows that he could be an All-American next year – there’s no question – but it depends on if he is ready to go to work this offseason.”

141: Chris Diaz (3-2)

First round: lost to No. 2 seed Zach Tanelli (Wisconsin), 8-4
Consolations: def. Elijah Nacita (CS Bakersfield), 11-6
Consolations: def. No. 5 seed Marcus Hoehn (Missouri), 16-5
Consolations: def. Jamal Parks (Oklahoma State), 4-3
Consolations: lost to No. 6 seed Nick Gallick (Iowa State), 6-1
Dresser’s take: “Chris is right there. The difference between the top eight and the next guys is a fine line sometimes, and unfortunately, he’s not yet quite over that fine line. But when you see yourself get that close and you don’t make it, it’s got to be a motivator. And Chris, like Jarrod – I’m going to sound like a broken record here – but we’ve got a lot of guys who are right on the line of being an All-American. They just have to get over the line.”

149: Pete Yates (Scratched due to injury)

Dresser’s take: “[Pete’s knee injury] was very frustrating. Pete was frustrated and we were frustrated because I felt like he would’ve made it to the All-America round. I think he’s that good as a true freshman. You can’t control injuries no matter what sport you’re in. It’s unfortunate that he got hurt, but he had a great year and he finished in the top 20 in the nation prior to the nationals. He can wrestle and he’s the kind of kid who is going to work his you-know-what off in the offseason.”

157: Jesse Dong (0-2)

First round: lost to No. 11 seed Chase Pami (Cal Poly), 5-1 (TB)
Consolations: lost to Kurt Kinser (Indiana), 10-2 (MD)
Dresser’s take: “Jesse had a great season, but he had a tough draw out there [in St. Louis]. He drew two good guys. The 157-pound weight class was probably the deepest weight class at the NCAA Tournament. There weren’t many easy consolation or championship matches there. He lost in double overtime in the first round to the kid who got seventh in the nation. You can’t get much closer than that.”

174: Anthony Trongone (1-2)

Pigtail: lost to Nate Rock (Buffalo), 2-1
Consolations: def. Hunter Meys (Boston), 8-5
Consolations: lost to Shane Onufer (Wyoming), 7-2
Dresser’s take: “It was a good experience for Anthony to get out there. The determining factor for him, if he’s ever going to be an All-American at Virginia Tech, is going to be the offseason, so we’ll see.”

184: Tommy Spellman (1-2)

First round: def. Christopher McNeil (Oklahoma State), 3-1 (SV)
Second round: lost to No. 3 Mike Pucillo (Ohio St.), 6-0
Consolations: lost to Rocco Caponi (Virginia), 1-0
Dresser’s take: “Tommy won a match out there, but I can’t say he was close to being an All-American this year because I think he’s got a ways to go. He’s got a choice to train to be one and he has the choice not to train so hard and just be an NCAA qualifier – there’s a huge difference. He’s got the ability. He’s just got to get to work this summer.”

197: D.J. Bruce (0-2)

First round: lost to No. 2 seed Jake Varner (Iowa State), 17-2 (TF)
Consolations: lost to Charles Silber (American), 10-4
Dresser’s take: “D.J. didn’t have a good NCAA Tournament. He’s got to do a little soul searching to decide how badly he wants it in this sport. He’s a great kid and a great team player, but individually, he’s got to pay the price in the offseason. He’s got to find a way to get tougher in the second half of a match as compared to the first half of a match. He struggles in the second half of the match and he’s got to figure out how to get over that hump.”

285: David Marone (3-2)

Tech’s coaching and athletic training staff had a busy time at the NCAA Championships, as the Hokies qualified a school-record eight wrestlers for the national meet.

First round: lost to DJ Russo (Rutgers), Fall 4:48
Consolations: def. Clayton Jack (Oregon St.), 10-2
Consolations: def. Benjamin Berhow (Minnesota), 6-4
Consolations: def. Rashard Goff (Cleveland State), 7-4
Consolations: lost to No. 9 seed John Wise (Illinois), 5-2
Dresser’s take: “David is probably the biggest overachiever we’ve got. Every time he steps out there, he’s always undersized and he probably doesn’t know as much wrestling as some guys on our team, but he just figures out a way to get it done. He had a terrible first-round match against a guy whom he had previously beaten, but he came back and won his next three and was right there knocking on the door of being an All-American. If we had gotten a better call against the kid from Illinois, he’s in overtime, and in overtime, he’s pretty good. I was very pleased with his effort.”