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November 5, 2009

Saving the best for last - Tech wrestling squad eyeing March success as 2009-10 season begins

By: Matt Kovatch

Virginia Tech Head Coach Kevin Dresser

The first phone call was to confirm hotel reservations for mid-March in Omaha, Neb., the site of the 2010 NCAA Wrestling Championships.

The second phone call, albeit a not-so-good one, was from a top-notch recruit who had called to say that he was going to attend another university for his wrestling career.

The former is just a matter of being proactive – confident enough to know that those rooms will be needed come March.

But without the latter – and more positive results, mind you – there is no trip to Omaha to speak of.

It’s a never-ending cycle for all head coaches, and Tech wrestling coach Kevin Dresser is no different. On that day in late October, he was simply trying to prepare his team for the upcoming 2009-10 season. But fielding those calls is a part of the job, and luckily for the Hokies, many of those top-notch recruits have been much more agreeable.

For the second consecutive season, Dresser and his staff will welcome one of the nation’s best recruiting classes. And for the second straight year, they plan on traveling with a full squad to the NCAA Tournament, with hopes of a top-20 finish.

“I think we have four or five guys, who, if they put it together this year, should have the ability to be All-Americans,” Dresser said. “Now, that’s probably five guys in a perfect situation, and in reality, that’s not going to happen. But we’ve got that many guys who are knocking on the door.

“Team-wise, we need to set a goal to be in the top 20 this year at the NCAA Tournament. We did it last year at the dual-meet level (Tech ranked 15th in the final InterMat team rankings), but we need to take the next step and be a top-20 team this year at the individual level.”

A team’s dual-meet ranking is determined by voters and results in regular-season matches, but at the NCAA Tournament, the final ranking is based on the sum of points earned by individuals. In 2008, the Hokies only qualified one wrestler and tied for 60th as a team. In 2009, seven Hokies competed in Omaha and earned Tech a 39th-place finish.

Chris Diaz (top) enters the season ranked seventh in the nation at 141 pounds and will aim to become an All-American.

What happens in 2010 remains to be seen, but the preseason InterMat rankings have provided an optimistic outlook for five Tech wrestlers: junior Chris Diaz is ranked seventh in the nation at 141 pounds; sophomore Jarrod Garnett is 12th at 125 pounds; sophomores Pete Yates and Jesse Dong are each 15th at 149 and 157, respectively; and junior Tommy Spellman is 17th at 184 pounds.

All five of those guys, plus 174-pounder Anthony Trongone and 197-pounder D.J. Bruce, traveled to the NCAA Championships last year, as did 165-pounder Matt Epperly two seasons ago. It was an invaluable experience, one that Dresser said shouldn’t be overlooked.

“I think getting there [to Omaha] and seeing what it’s all about is huge,” the fourth-year head coach said. “That’s got to pay off for us when we get there this year. I think we should return at least six of those guys. No matter how many times you watch it, until you step out there and wrestle at the NCAA Tournament, you can’t get a feel for it.”

Performing well at the national championships is the ultimate goal, and Dresser is even willing to sacrifice a few regular-season wins to do so.

“We’re going to focus less on dual meets this season,” Dresser said. “Last year, we were trying to make a presence in Division-I wrestling, and I think we accomplished that. We went 20-2 last year, but I can promise everyone that we won’t be 20-2 this year. We’re structuring things toward February and March this year to get ready for the postseason.”

Dresser equates this season’s goals to those of a track and field team. A coach can throw his or her distance runners and sprinters out there for every meet, but they will likely be gassed by the time the conference and national meets roll around. The object is to have everyone peaking at the same time, and that’s what Dresser hopes to have the Hokies doing come March.

“Last year, we were so young that it was about bringing guys around every week,” Dresser explained. “Our focus hasn’t changed in that respect, but we just need to be a little bit more ready to go at the end of the year. We’re still going to try to put the best team on the mat each and every week, but we also want to make sure that, when we get to the end of the year, we have the right guys in the lineup.

“We want to make sure we’re healthy. We need to make sure that we have fresh legs at the end of the year, so we’re going to take advantage of the depth of certain weight classes.”

That might mean giving some of the Hokies’ top guys a match off once in a while, not only to give them a rest, but also to see what the guys behind them might have to offer.

“We’re going to wrestle some different lineups early on,” Dresser said. “We’re all competitive, and we want to win dual meets, but we’re going to see who is battle-tested and who isn’t battle-tested. We’re going to throw a lot of guys in there early and let the cream rise to the top.”

Ranked 17th in the preseason, Tommy Spellman will be counted on to provide some big wins at 184 pounds.

Because of the Hokies’ impressive recruiting haul – W.I.N. Magazine ranked Tech’s freshman class as the fifth best in the country this year – Dresser can afford to mix and match some lineups until he finds one to his liking. Much in the way Tech’s freshmen made an impact last year – guys like Garnett, Dong, Yates and Brock LiVorio – Dresser says the new group of rookies has the ability to do the same. Here’s a brief look at how each of the weight classes could shake out:

125: Garnett has this spot locked up after earning ACC freshman of the year honors last year.

“He did a really good job for us, but he needs to take a step this year just in terms of toughness,” Dresser said. “He’s got all of the physical and athletic tools, but he’s got to consistently want to go out and smack somebody in the mouth.”

133: LiVorio handled most of the duties at 133 last year as a freshman, but incoming freshman Eric Spjut is giving him a run for his money.

“Just based on what we’ve seen in practice, I’d give Eric a slight advantage,” Dresser said. “He’s going to be really good before he leaves Virginia Tech. But we didn’t think Brock was going to be our No. 1 guy last year either. We’ve got some good competition there, and those guys will both be tough because of each other.”

141: Diaz was one round away from All-America status last year and returns as the starter after going 33-12 as a sophomore. He wants to be a semifinalist this year and has the talent to do it, but like Garnett, he needs to be ready to bring it at all times.

“He has to step it up from a toughness and consistency standpoint,” Dresser said.

149: Yates is the favorite here after he went 31-8 as a freshman. He qualified for the NCAA Championships, but was a late scratch with a knee injury. He’s healthy now, but should he falter, look for true freshman Taylor Knapp to get some action. He was a three-time Georgia state champion in high school.

157: Dong owns the starting role after a stellar freshman campaign, and he is expected to do big things in one of the most competitive weight classes in wrestling. But highly touted true freshman Hayden Countryman, a five-time Alabama state champion, is right on his heels and will get his chances early in the season.

165: Epperly, a redshirt junior, was the ACC champion in this weight class in 2008 before having a down year in 2009.

“He’s Mr. Inconsistency right now,” Dresser said. “He’s got all the ability in the world, but he lacks consistency and discipline. We need him to give us the same effort every time. He gives good effort at competitions, but he needs to do a good job every day in preparing for those competitions.”

174: Trongone, now a redshirt sophomore, impressed in his first season and has the coaches anxious about his encore.

“Anthony had a good offseason,” Dresser said. “I’m very excited to see him wrestle this year and to see what he’s added to his game. He’s always been a bit limited offensively, so I’m curious to see if he can put up some more points to widen that gap.”

184: Spellman was the ACC runner-up in this weight class last year as a sophomore and was the winner of 25 matches. Like Trongone, he was asked to add some offensive moves in hopes of scoring more points, and the coaches are ready to see if that happened.

“Both Anthony and Tommy wrestle low-scoring, down-to-the-wire matches,” Dresser said. “We need them to blow some guys out.”

197: This is probably Tech’s biggest question mark at the start of the season. Bruce wrestled here last year, but he packed on some weight in the offseason and is currently going to start at the heavyweight (285) class. That leaves Chris Penny, an athletic true freshman with a lot of potential, and journeyman Tim Miller, a senior who relies on his smarts and experience. If Bruce doesn’t work out at heavyweight, look for him to slowly drop his weight (the NCAA only allows wrestlers to lose 1.5 percent of their body weight per week) to certify here by February.

285: Tech’s starter at heavyweight the past two seasons, junior David Marone, is scheduled to take a redshirt year. He wrestled here because of team needs and never was quite big enough to reach his full potential, so he’ll use this season to get bigger and stronger.

“In our sport, you really need to redshirt every kid who has a shot to become an All-American,” Dresser said. “There are exceptions to that rule, but that extra year of maturity is important. We’ve got no pro contracts to shoot for, so that extra year is nice to use.”

Bruce will hold down the fort here until football player Andrew Miller is available to start wrestling. At 6-foot-4, 285 pounds, the true freshman currently works with the football team as a scout-team center.

“He’s going to push some guys around,” Dresser said. “Depending on how soon Coach Beamer lets us have him, he could be a threat right away. He’s agile and light on his feet, and he could make a huge impact for us.”