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November 19, 2012

Grappling With High Expectations

By: Jimmy Robertson

A lineup that features seven wrestlers with NCAA experience has the Hokies aiming at lofty goals for this upcoming season

YatesPete Yates, a redshirt senior at 165 pounds, finished fifth at the NCAA Championships last year and hopes to position himself for a run at a national title this season.

To give an indication of the expectations of the Virginia Tech wrestling team this season, one only needs to consider this:

Devin Carter is going into this season as a backup.

That’s right. Last year’s All-American, who finished fifth at the NCAA Championships at 133 pounds and who went 36-5 on the season, will be a backup at 141 pounds.

“He’s a great backup,” Tech wrestling coach Kevin Dresser joked.

Actually, Dresser plans to redshirt Carter this season to allow him to develop more and will use him only in the event of an emergency. But a loaded lineup gives Dresser that flexibility, as the Hokies go into 2012-13 looking to improve on their finish at the NCAA Championships from a year ago, when they tied for 11th.

The Hokies get three guys back who missed most, or all, of last season with injuries and another talented wrestler who redshirted a year ago. In all, Tech’s lineup features seven former NCAA qualifiers at some point in their respective careers in the 10 weight classes, thus fueling the high expectations.

“On paper, it’s pretty exciting just because of knowing the whole history of the past six years and what we inherited and what we started with to where we’re at now,” Dresser said. “However, there is no such thing as automatic in Division I athletics when you’re at the top 20 level. Even though we look pretty good on paper, nothing is automatic, and that’s what we have to keep preaching to these guys and getting them to understand.”

In 2006, Dresser was tasked with replacing former head coach Tom Brands, who departed for Iowa after two years and took five prominent wrestlers with him. Each year, though, Dresser made progress in rebuilding the program, culminating in last year’s program-best finish at the NCAA Championships.

Six Tech wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Championships a year ago. Carter and Pete Yates earned All-America honors, and the Hokies came within a half of a point from placing in the top 10.

A deep lineup has Dresser optimistic that his group can reach that standard this season.

“I think we’ve arrived as a national presence,” Dresser said. “We’ve proven we can get it done. Now, as a team and a program, we need to set a goal to be a top-10 team and top-10 program year in and year out. That’s our goal. We placed 11th last year – we missed 10th by half a point – so we need to prove that we’re a top-10 team year in and year out. That’s a lot easier said than done.”

Now, here is more of an in-depth look at the Hokies by weight class:

125 pounds – Jarrod Garnett redshirted last season, but the three-time NCAA qualifier (and two-time ACC champion) returns this season to make a bid for his fourth NCAA berth. He is a proven winner, with 96 career wins during his time at Tech – eighth-most in school history. Dresser goes into this season with high expectations for Garnett and justifiably so, given the young man’s talent.

“Jarrod Garnett is a guy who needs to get it done for his sake,” Dresser said. “He’s really, really focused. A redshirt year last year was the very best thing for him. He’s won a couple of ACC titles, and he’s a three-time NCAA qualifier. It’s time for him to get it done. He’s putting pressure on himself in a good way, and he’s really excited about the season. I think he learned a lot from watching last year.”

Matt Peters, a redshirt junior, will be Garnett’s backup.

133 pounds – Erik Spjut, a redshirt junior, moves up to 133 pounds after wrestling last year at 125. Spjut went 28-15 last season and qualified for the NCAA Championships, which was a tremendous accomplishment considering it took great discipline for him to keep his weight down to wrestle at 125. So he should fit in better at 133.

“He made a heckuva sacrifice last year,” Dresser said. “He’s got one of the best work ethics on the team, but Erik needs to figure out how to get it done when he competes. This will be a big year for him. He’s struggled offensively, and he needs to figure out a way to score points. It doesn’t matter if it’s football or wrestling, you’ve got to get some touchdowns, and we’ve got to get some touchdowns at 133.”

Jordan O’Donnell, a sophomore, backs up Spjut at 133.

141 pounds – Zach Neibert returns to this spot after a season in which he finished third at the ACC Championships, but qualified for the NCAA Championships and made it to the quarterfinals before losing to N.C. State’s Darius Little, who beat him three times last season. Still, Neibert, a redshirt junior, went 22-12 and Dresser expects more of the same this season.

“He’s the best gamer on the team,” Dresser said. “He likes the limelight. Zach had a growth spurt, and he is really having to be disciplined with his weight this year. What he does before practice and after practice each day is really going to dictate a lot of his success. He’s going to have to have a lot of discipline. Training is going to be his buzzword. He’s got to make sure he feels good out there. If he doesn’t feel good, it’s going to be hard to win, no matter how much of a gamer you are.”

Carter would be the guy at this weight class in the event of a Neibert injury. Redshirting gives Carter the opportunity to get stronger and develop his game. Most wrestlers redshirt at some point in their careers, and now is the best time for Carter to take his redshirt year.

“His goal is to be a national champion – two times – and we need to put him in the best position to do that,” Dresser said. “But Devin also knows that there is a possible scenario in which he might wrestle this year. A lot has to happen, but our plan is to redshirt him.”

149 pounds – Outside of Carter and Yates, Nick Brascetta was the Hokies’ most consistent performer, and he returns at 149. A year ago, he was the ACC champion at this weight class, earning the league’s rookie of the year honor, and qualified for the NCAA Championships. He upset ninth-seeded David Habat of Edinboro in the first round before losing his next two matches. He finished his season with a 10-5 record after missing a portion of the season with an ankle injury.

“He’s one of the most skilled guys on the team,” Dresser said. “He has to learn how to generate more offense. If he could do that, he could be an All-American this year for us.”

Dresser plans on having Lex Ozias as the backup at 149, but he first wants to use the redshirt freshman at 157, as Jesse Dong works his way back from injury. Chad Strube, a sophomore, also will work at 149 pounds.

157 pounds – The aforementioned Dong went 7-0 last season before injuring his shoulder in practice, and the surgery ruined his season. Dong applied for a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA and received it, thus enabling him to come back for this season. Now, like Garnett, the redshirt senior will be shooting for his third ACC championship and fourth NCAA Championship berth. Dong went 20-3 during his junior season.

“He’s one of the top five guys in the nation right now, just like Jarrod,” Dresser said. “He’s one of the leaders on our team and one of the hardest-working guys in our room. He’s got to take it day to day and continue to get better. If he does, he’ll be right in the thick of it at the NCAA tournament.

“He’s about 90 percent healthy. We’re going to be a little cautious with him. We’re not going to wrestle him a lot early. We’ll see how he progresses.”

Matt Stephens, a sophomore, and Sal Mastriani, a freshman, go in as the backups at 157.

165 pounds – Yates, who earned All-America honors a year ago at the NCAA Championships by finishing fifth in this weight class, returns for his senior season. Yates, who is a three-time NCAA qualifier, went 28-7 a year ago and has 97 wins in his career – seventh-most in school history. He goes into this season with national championship aspirations, though that probably will require beating Penn State’s David Taylor, who won the national title last year and is 70-1 the past two seasons.

“Pete is battle tested now,” Dresser said. “To get fifth in the nation [last year], he had one heckuva tough road, and he did it. Pete’s excited about this year. He’s one of the quiet leaders on our team, and probably the most skilled guy on our team. He’s the most fun to watch. He can score from every position.”

Sophomore Issah Meade will be the backup to Yates at 165.

174 pounds – The uncertainty in Tech’s lineup lies within this weight class. A year ago, junior Chris Moon finished second at the ACC Championships and qualified for the NCAA Championships, but Dresser plans on redshirting Moon and then moving him to 165 pounds, where he appears to be a better fit.

Thus, the battle will be between Austin Gabel and John Dickson. Gabel, a redshirt freshman, went 15-6 while competing in unattached events a year ago, while Dickson, a senior, went 14-17 overall and 1-4 in the ACC.

“We’ve also got a true freshman in Huston Evans who could be the guy, and then possibly Chris Moon, if none of the other guys gets the job done,” Dresser said. “I feel like we’ve got four guys, but not ‘one’ guy. Chris is the best guy, but I don’t feel he’s a 174-pounder. He qualified for the NCAA tournament last year at the wrong weight just because he’s such a good wrestler.”

184 pounds – Nick Vetterlein returns after a season in which he wrestled at 197 pounds. The redshirt junior went 24-11 overall and 4-1 in ACC matches, but he struggled at the higher weight class at the ACC Championships, losing as a third seed to sixth-seeded Brian Self of Duke and then falling to fifth-seeded KaRonne Jones 11-8 in the consolations. Thus, he did not qualify for the NCAA Championships.

The move down to 184 pounds, though, figures to be a good one for Vetterlein, and by extension, the Hokies.

“He’s got tons of ability,” Dresser said. “He could really be a pleasant surprise for us. He was really good early last year and then faded on us. I don’t think he was used to the grind or the pressure, but that experience last year should bode well for him.”

Sam Law, a redshirt sophomore, goes into the season as the backup at 184.

197 pounds – Two guys are battling for the starting nod at this class, with Derrick Borlie, a transfer from Wisconsin, slightly leading Bobby Lavelle, a sophomore. Borlie went 21-8 as a freshman at Wisconsin and would have been eligible for Tech last January. But he suffered a torn ACL, thus putting him out for all of last season. Lavelle redshirted last year after going 11-10 as a true freshman.

“We’ll treat him like Jesse Dong – we’ll watch him closely and pick and choose when we wrestle him in November,” Dresser said of Borlie. “Bobby Lavelle has also done a good job for us. He moved down from heavyweight, and he’s in his third year. He could be a factor. Then, the final guy is Darren Hankins, who is a hard-working guy.”

Hankins is a sophomore who went 4-9 a year ago.

Heavyweight – David Marone returns as the Hokies’ heavyweight after being granted a sixth year by the NCAA. Marone missed two seasons because of injury – a shoulder injury ruined his 2009-10 season and then he tore his ACL last year – and that enabled him to get the sixth year.

A year ago, Marone was 5-0 before tearing his ACL. The two-time NCAA qualifier went 20-10 in 2010-11, qualifying for the NCAA Championships after finishing second at the ACC Championships.

“David has been looking good,” Dresser said. “We’re going to pick and choose how we wrestle him early on. His knee doesn’t bother him, but he’s not quite in shape. We can make up some ground there, though. I think he’s going to have a good season for us.”

Dresser plans on redshirting senior Chris Penny, who went 12-8 overall and 5-0 in the ACC last year. He was the runner-up at the ACC championships at heavyweight. So Ty Walz, a true freshman, will be the backup behind Marone.

This lineup will be tested early on, as the Hokies take on Big 10 foes such as Ohio State and Wisconsin, future ACC member Pittsburgh, and Edinboro of the Eastern Wrestling League. In addition, the Hokies will compete at the NWCA National Duals held in Corvallis, Ore., in mid-February.

Tech can compete with the best in the country, but the key will be remaining healthy. A year ago, the Hokies lost Dong, Borlie and Marone to injuries, and that hurt the team’s finish at both the ACC Championships and the NCAA Championships.

“We could have been top five last year, if we were healthy,” Dresser said. “We didn’t qualify [for the NCAA Championships] at heavyweight or at 157, so that was a huge turn of events.

“So we’re going to make sure our guys are healthy going into January. I really feel like this team is going to hit its stride in January. We’ll just compete the whole month of November and get our guys healthy. If we stay healthy, we’ll hit our stride in January. We have some big goals, and we want to be ready to attain them.”