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November 14, 2011

Deeper wrestling lineup has Hokies grappling toward higher goals

By: Jimmy Robertson

When Kevin Dresser took over the Virginia Tech wrestling program in April of 2006, the cupboard wasn’t bare.

For all intents and purposes, there wasn’t even a cupboard.

Tom Brands’ messy departure for Iowa after a two-year stint as Tech’s coach and the exodus of nearly all the good wrestlers in the program left the Hokies’ wrestling outfit on life support. Yet in five years, Dresser has built the cupboard and stocked it with five straight top-11 recruiting classes. He started setting goals of championships and All-Americans.

“For the first time ever, every guy in that wrestling room is our guy,” Dresser said. “So that’s exciting. The culture is great. We’ve got the right kind of kids in our room.”

Dresser’s optimism for the 2011-12 season comes after a bitter ending to the 2010-11 campaign. Tech expected to win the ACC title, but finished second, and despite qualifying seven wrestlers for the NCAA Championships, the Hokies didn’t earn any All-America honors.

“Quite honestly, we had a couple of guys who let us down,” Dresser said. “There is no question about it. It’s like having Malcolm Delaney fouling out and scoring four points, or having Jeff Allen fouling out and scoring six points. You can’t win.

“We definitely made strides if you look back and evaluate the whole season. We did some really good things. The direction of the program is going in the direction we want it to go. We beat Oklahoma State [ranked No. 2 at the time], we beat Wisconsin [ranked No. 4] and we beat a bunch of teams in dual meets. We made steps. But obviously, we either didn’t have the experience or the energy at the end of the year to have the national tournament we wanted to have.

“So the battle cry for this year is consistency and get better every day. We talk about it every day. We need to get better and make sure that translates into consistency. We’ve proven we can do it. We’ve just got to do it week in and week out.”

The Hokies figure to be consistent this season because they lost only two seniors off last season’s squad, and Dresser’s quality recruiting classes have added depth to the program. In fact, he harbors hopes of redshirting two of his NCAA qualifiers from a year ago and maybe a couple of terrific freshmen, attempting to build for a deep run at the NCAA Championships next season. The Hokies’ two open tournaments at the beginning of the season – the Hokie Open and the Wolfpack Open – will go a long way toward determining who wrestles.

“The big question for us is what guys do we wrestle and what guys do we redshirt because we’ve got some depth right now,” Dresser said.

Here is more of an in-depth look at the Hokies by weight class:

125 pounds – A year ago, Jarrod Garnett won his second ACC title at 125 and advanced to the NCAA Championships, where he won two matches. Dresser, though, wants to redshirt Garnett.

“Jarrod is very skilled and capable of being a top-four guy,” Dresser said. “Jarrod’s chink is that he has to be able to match the toughness of those top guys. He needs to be able to slug it out for seven minutes and not just four. He’s got to be a tough guy with the tough guys. He’s capable. There’s no question.”

Erik Spjut, a redshirt sophomore, or Ty Mitch, a redshirt freshman, would get the job if Garnett redshirts. Spjut went 7-6 at 133 pounds as a true freshman, but redshirted last season.

133 pounds – Dresser has no worries here as sophomore Devin Carter returns following a freshman season in which he won an ACC title and advanced to the round of 12 at the NCAA Championships. The ACC’s co-rookie of the year went 32-5, with a team-high 11 pins.

“He’s arguably, pound for pound, the toughest guy we’ve got in our room,” Dresser said. “He’s not the most talented yet, but he’s the toughest, and that’s what gives him a chance. If I picked up the paper and Devin Carter was in the NCAA finals, it wouldn’t surprise me. With that said, he’s got to win and keep progressing. But the sky is the limit.”

141 pounds – Tech lost Chris Diaz, who made it to the NCAA Championships as a senior last season, but Dresser raved about Zach Neibert, a redshirt sophomore from Dayton, Ohio, who takes over for Diaz. Neibert went 22-6 last season while filling in at 141 when needed.

“He is one dangerous dude,” Dresser said of Neibert. “He’s very unorthodox. He’s a pinner. He’s hard to scout against because he does so much unusual stuff. I think he’s our sleeper. He lacks consistency, but once he gets consistency, he’s one of those guys that, if you’re a No. 1 or No. 2 seed at nationals, you don’t want to draw him.”

149 pounds – Brian Stephens, a junior from Piqua, Ohio, advanced to the NCAA Championships last season after going 28-11 in this class. However, like with Garnett, Dresser hopes to redshirt him in part because Stephens underwent knee surgery in April.

Fifth-year senior Nick Murray, freshman Nick Brascetta and freshman Lex Ozias are competing for the job in the event Dresser redshirts Stephens. Brascetta ranks as the favorite.

“We’ve got a freshman that we think can do the same thing that Devin Carter did in Nick Brascetta,” Dresser said. “We think he could be that good.”

157 pounds – Two-time ACC champion and two-time NCAA qualifier Jesse Dong returns for his senior season. Dresser tried to redshirt Dong last season, but decided to pull the redshirt, and Dong responded by going 20-3 overall. He won two matches at the NCAA Championships, but came up short in a bid to earn All-America honors, and that serves as motivation this season.

“Jesse is excited about this year, and his confidence is back – not that it was gone,” Dresser said. “But he had a bad tournament, and it was the NCAA tournament, which is unfortunate. He’s battle tested. His goal is to be an All-American. He wants to be down there on Saturday night [wrestling for an NCAA Championship].”

165 pounds – Pete Yates, a redshirt junior, returns after finishing second at the ACC Championships and qualifying for the NCAA Championships. Yates, who won a match at the NCAAs, went 28-10 overall.

“Yates is a guy that is ready to get it done,” Dresser said. “He wants to wrestle on Saturday, and if you do that, you’re an All-American. His goals are nothing less than that.

“He’s very, very capable of being among the top in the nation. It’s just a matter of consistency, but he’s been unbelievable in the room so far. He just needs to create some offense. For some reason, he went from being really offensive as a freshman to being just the opposite as a sophomore. So he’s got to find some balance there.”

174 pounds – This weight class is wide open, and Dresser may run a freshman out there at this spot. In short, three candidates are vying for the job – sophomore Chris Moon from Fauquier, Va.; junior John Dickson from Virginia Beach, Va., who wrestled at 184 pounds a year ago; and freshman Austin Gabel, a highly recruited three-time state champion from Parker, Colo.

“This weight class is going to be like 149,” Dresser said. “We’ve got a true sophomore in Chris Moon that we’re really excited about. I think he’s going to be a guy who can excite a lot of people.

“Behind him, John Dickson moved down, and we look for him to challenge at that spot. He felt he had a better chance there. Then we’ve got a true freshman from Colorado named Austin Gabel that we’re excited about.”

184 pounds – Dresser is excited to see redshirt freshman Angelo Malvestuto on the mat at this class. The Niagara Falls, N.Y., native redshirted last season after winning the state championship with a 48-0 record his senior season.

“He’s going to take some lumps, but his work ethic is off the charts and his toughness is off the charts,” Dresser said. “We’ve just got to get his wrestling off the charts. When we do that, we’ll have a heckuva wrestler. He’s got the intangibles.”

197 pounds – Chris Penny went just 14-21 at this weight class a year ago, but wrestled well toward the end of the season. Dresser wants to redshirt him, get him bigger and stronger and then move him to the heavyweight class next year. So that leaves redshirt sophomore Nick Vetterlein and freshmen Darren Hankins and Jake Semones battling for the job.

Vetterlein’s experience gives him an edge in the battle. The Allendale, N.J., native wrestled at 184 pounds a year ago, going 14-10, and bulked up in the offseason to move to 197.

“I think he’s one of our most improved wrestlers,” Dresser said. “He has an in-your-face style of wrestling. I think he’s going to make an impact for us.”

Heavyweight – David Marone returns for his senior season after going 20-10 overall and qualifying for the NCAA Championships. Marone only wrestled at about 50 percent following offseason surgery for a torn labrum, but Dresser has high expectations for the Broomfield, Colo., native now that he’s healthy.

“The time is now for him,” Dresser said. “This is the first time he’s been healthy since his sophomore year. He’s 240 pounds and strong. Last year, he couldn’t lift weights for six months, and to compete at the level he competed says a lot about his toughness. He wasn’t healthy all year.”

Most prognosticators think highly of the Hokies’ chances this season. Intermat, a publication that covers wrestling, rated the Hokies at No. 21 in its preseason poll, and given the experience and talent that returns for the Hokies, Dresser put together a rugged schedule to live up to that ranking. The Hokies travel to Ohio State, Iowa State and Oklahoma. Ohio State and Oklahoma were ranked tied for ninth and No. 16, respectively, by Intermat, with Iowa State coming in at No. 24. Also, ACC foes Maryland and Virginia were ranked 11th and tied for 17th, respectively.

Even with that schedule, Dresser has lofty expectations for his group – an ACC title and a top-10 showing at the NCAA Championships.

“I’ve been known to do two things – I’ve been known to set my goals too high and I’ve also been known to achieve them,” he said. “So that’s my goal. I think this team, healthy, has that potential. No question.”