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November 10, 2010

THE TIME IS NOW - That's the theme as a stacked Virginia Tech wrestling team begins another promising season

By: Matt Kovatch

Thanks to the Virginia Tech athletics facilities boon, the Hokie football team is enjoying life in their brand new locker room facility that was built adjacent to Jamerson Athletic Center this past summer. But an added bonus to the facility – likely unknown to most, aside from Virginia Tech wrestling fanatics – is the top level of the new building.

The top floor of the addition was bestowed upon the up-and-coming wrestling program, and head coach Kevin Dresser and the Hokies couldn’t be more appreciative.

“I can tell the guys love it,” Dresser said. “In the past, when we got done with practice – boom – everybody was out of there. But now guys are sticking around after practice, whether they’re getting their weight down or just doing some extra stuff. They’re hanging out in there a lot more.”

The new facility not only helps the current Hokies by providing much more space, but it also should boost their recruiting efforts with any prospect who gets a chance to see it.

“The curb appeal and the ‘wow factor’ is awesome,” Dresser said. “No matter what school a recruit has been to, we’re not taking a back seat in facilities to anybody right now.”

A video tour of the new facility can be viewed by clicking on “wrestling” at In that video, which was filmed when the Hokies moved in during late August, Dresser navigates his way through the facility like a proud new father. In late October, however, one could get the sense that Dresser was ready to move past the shiny, new toys and get on to the nitty gritty of the upcoming season. Maybe that’s just the tough-as-nails nature of wrestling coaches, but it’s clear that Dresser is psyched about getting his Hokies out on the mat.

125: #10 Jarrod Garnett
141: #8 Chris Diaz
149: #16 Brian Stephens
157: #15 Pete Yates
165: #15 Matt Epperly
184: #11 Tommy Spellman
HWT: #12 David Marone

“We have a lot of experience in a lot of weight classes right now,” Dresser explained. “We still have some young guys, but we have a good mix right now that we haven’t had before. We can’t say we’re young and inexperienced anymore. It’s time for us to make it happen now. We need to get it done from day one.”

There will be three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup this year, all of whom enter the season ranked among the nation’s top 15 in their respective weight classes. Two other sophomores find themselves ranked in the top 20, and the lineup will feature a true freshman who is sure to be ranked once he qualifies by wrestling his first match.

That group does not even include 157-pounder Jesse Dong, an Atlantic Coast Conference champion who earned the third seed at the NCAA Championships last year. While Dresser is focused on winning this season, he’s also mindful that, to be a national power, you can’t just burst onto the scene once every few years. That’s why the Hokies have made the tough decision to redshirt Dong in 2010-11.

“While we feel that the time is now for this year, you know what?” Dresser asked. “It’s got to be a year-in, year-out thing. We need to step up to the plate every year – not just when we have the right guys at the right weights. It needs to be a yearly thing and a program-building thing if we are going to be a national-caliber program.”

Sitting down one of your best wrestlers might not make sense at first glance, but when you’re looking to the future – as Dresser surely is, knowing that those three seniors will be gone next year – it’s the right thing to do to ensure continuing depth.

Even without Dong, the Hokies are expected to contend for the ACC crown this year. In fact, the preseason National Wrestling Coaches Association/USA Today Coaches Poll has Tech pegged 13th nationally, due largely to the contributions that those seven ranked individuals will make.

“If I picked up the newspaper the Sunday after the NCAA Championships and it said we had six All-Americans, it wouldn’t surprise me,” Dresser admitted. “But with that said, there is such a fine line. Those six guys – I’m not worried about them qualifying – but are they good enough to get to the final day? That is the question. They’re good enough, but they’ve obviously got to pick up the slack and make sure that they go from just being a qualifier to being good enough to go and actually get it done.”

And with that said, here’s a brief look at how each of the weight classes could shake out:

125: Jarrod Garnett will start here for the third consecutive year after he claimed the ACC title last season. The junior from Delaware also advanced to the round of 12 at the NCAA Championships, falling one win short of All-America status. He should be right back in the thick of things come March. Freshman T.J. Mitchell and junior Schuyler Swanton will back up Garnett, but Tech coaches are also excited about another true freshman who is coming in to redshirt, Ohio native Ty Mitch.

“He is going to be the heir apparent to Jarrod Garnett,” Dresser said. “He is really special.”

133: Local product Devin Carter, a true freshman from Christiansburg who won the state title three times and compiled a career record of 199-15, will have the starting spot from the beginning, and Dresser couldn’t be more excited.

“Devin is going to open guys’ eyes up,” Dresser said. “He is one of the most exciting freshmen we’ve ever had, and we’ve had some good ones. Wrestling is one of the most important things in his life, and it shows every day when he comes in here. He is going to be really good from day one, and I’m just going to leave it at that.”

The most promising wrestler behind Carter is sophomore Erik Spjut from Texas, though he may end up redshirting due to a knee injury he suffered in January.

141: Chris Diaz returns for his senior season and is expecting big things, as are the coaches. He became the first All-American in Dresser’s tenure when he placed eighth at the NCAA Tournament in March by storming through the consolation bracket after a first-round loss. Though the starting spot is his to lose, Diaz will be pushed by some good depth this year.

“We have a pretty good transfer in redshirt freshman Zach Neibert from Northern Illinois,” Dresser said. “He went to the same high school as [149-pounder] Brian Stephens. Zach is going to push Chris, and then we’ve got Nick Murray, who has seen some starting duty in his time here.”

149: Sophomore Brian Stephens returns following an outstanding freshman campaign in which he earned ACC Freshman of the Year honors. It was an effort that almost never happened, as he was scheduled to redshirt behind Pete Yates before Yates went down with an injury. Stephens responded by going 13-5 and winning the conference title in his weight class.

“We’re expecting big things out of Brian this year,” Dresser said. “He’s a guy who could really make things happen for us. We don’t have a lot of depth at 149 right now, but it looks like Chris Mears, a prep school national runner-up from Texas, is going to back him up.”

157: As mentioned earlier, the Hokies are planning on redshirting standout Jesse Dong, but they wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t have a supreme option behind him in Yates, a third-year sophomore.

“Normally, people would say, ‘What the heck are you redshirting Jesse Dong for?’” Dresser said.”Well, that’s how much confidence we have in Pete Yates.”

Yates qualified for the NCAA Championships at 149 pounds during his freshman season in 2008-09, but sat out last year with a knee injury. He returns in a new weight class and with All-America potential.

“Pete really struggled last year to make weight at 149, so moving to 157 was inevitable,” Dresser said. “In fact, he might be at 165 next year – that’s how big he is. He’s going to be a big 157.”

165: Two-time ACC champion Matt Epperly returns for his fifth year in the program, and coaches are looking for him to take the next step forward.

“Matt hasn’t been able to get it done at the NCAA level, but he needs to do that this year,” Dresser said.

Behind Epperly is some solid depth that includes a pair of promising true freshmen in Chris Moon and Harrison Hightower. Moon was a prep school national champion in 2010 and Hightower went 43-2 during his senior season, while winning his third Ohio state championship.

174: This is the weight class with the most question marks entering the season, and it will come down to one of four guys – all of whom are freshmen. According to Dresser, the options are Nick Vetterlein from New Jersey, Angelo Malvestuto from New York, Sam Law from Virginia and Tanner Eitel from Texas.

“This weight class is up for grabs right now, but it’s going to be some good competition all year long,” Dresser said.

For what it’s worth, the Hokies had their intrasquad wrestle-offs in late October, and while Malvestuto defeated Law, Vetterlein later defeated Malvestuto.

184: Tommy Spellman has been reliable here for the past two seasons, but the coaching staff is ready for him to step it up a notch as a senior. Spellman is a two-time NCAA Championships qualifier and he has twice been the runner up at the ACC Tournament.

“Tommy needs to get it done this year and win an ACC title,” Dresser stressed. “We’re excited to see what he can do.”

Virginia Beach native John Dickson will be the top backup to Spellman.

197: Sophomore Chris Penny is the clear-cut option in this weight class despite going just 3-16 last season.

“Chris got thrown to the wolves last year as a true freshman and kind of had to survive all year, but he’s a guy whom we’re really excited to see,” Dresser said. “He’s probably one of the most improved guys from last year to this year.”

Former starter D.J. Bruce, now a redshirt junior, dealt with a torn ACL last year but should share backup duties with freshman Bobby LaVelle.

HWT: Fourth-year junior David Marone returns to the lineup this season after taking last year off to have shoulder surgery and to pack on some needed bulk. He did just that, adding about 25 pounds to get himself up to the 240-pound range. It should pay dividends for an athletic heavyweight who was one win away from being an All-American as a sophomore.

“We’re really excited to have David back,” Dresser said. “He is looking great. We think he can be right there in the hunt at the end of the year.”

Andrew Miller, an offensive lineman on the football team, is expected to join the squad after the Hokies’ bowl game.

For The Official Wrestling Roster click here.

For The Official Wrestling Schedule click here.