User ID: Password:

November 8, 2013

Hokies hope to keep grip on ACC title

By: Jimmy Robertson

The Tech wrestling team won its first ACC team championship last season and finished a program-best 10th at the NCAAs, and the return of guys like Devin Carter, Chris Moon and Zach Neibert mean expectations are high again this season

Zach Neibert was an All-American last season, and the Hokies need another great year from the senior to reach their goal of another top-10 finish at the NCAA Championships.

The 2013-14 Virginia Tech wrestling team saw 50 percent of its starting lineup depart from last season’s team that finished a program-best 10th nationally at the NCAA Championships. Those leaving included a couple of All-Americans, another four-time NCAA qualifier, and a three-time NCAA qualifier.

So how does wrestling coach Kevin Dresser feel about his current team, one with many new faces at different weight classes?

“I really think that, by the end of the year, this team could potentially break records,” he said.

Bold words from the Hokies’ head coach, who enters his eighth season in Blacksburg.

Tech enters the 2013-14 campaign ranked eighth in the NWCA/USA Today coaches’ preseason poll despite losing half of the starting lineup. Longtime stalwarts such as Pete Yates, Jarrod Garnett, Jesse Dong and David Marone are gone, along with Derrick Borlie, who left the program over the summer. Yates, the ACC’s Wrestler of the Year last season, finished fourth at 165 pounds at the NCAA Championships and was a two-time All-American, while Garnett finished sixth at 125 pounds and earned All-America honors. Dong won three ACC titles at 157 pounds and qualified for the NCAAs four times, while Marone won the ACC’s heavyweight crown last season and qualified for the NCAAs three times. Combined, the four won 460 matches in their careers at Tech.

But the reason for optimism centers on the unique combination of returning starters, a terrific class of freshmen (ranked fifth nationally by Amateur Wrestling News) and the return of several key performers who took a redshirt year last season – a group that Dresser said is “flying under the radar.”

In that latter group is Devin Carter, a two-time ACC champion at 133 pounds and an All-American in 2012 after finishing fifth at the NCAA Championships. He took a redshirt year to get stronger and to work on his game, and the added bulk means that the redshirt junior from nearby Christiansburg, Va., will be moving up to 141 pounds this season.

“We felt he was between 133 and 141, so we focused on getting bigger and stronger, and we probably overdid it a little bit because now he’s a tweener between 141 and 149,” Dresser said. “But Devin’s a tough kid, and he’s going to suck it up. He’ll be a big and strong 141-pounder.

“He’s obviously really special. He moved up a weight, and he’s ranked third in the nation [at 141 pounds]. Not many guys can pull that off. He’s wrestling the second-ranked guy [Edinboro’s Mitchell Port] on Nov. 16, so it’s conceivable that he could be ranked first or second in the nation by Thanksgiving.

“So he’s not flying under the radar. But I do believe guys like Chris Moon and Chris Penny are flying under the radar.”

Like Carter, Moon and Penny both took redshirt seasons a year ago. Moon qualified for the NCAA Championships at 174 pounds as a sophomore, but will wrestle at 165 pounds this season. Penny, now a redshirt senior, finished second at the ACC Championships as a heavyweight two years ago, but will wrestle at a more natural 197 pounds this season.

In addition to those three, Tech also returns Zach Neibert, who finished in eighth place at 141 pounds at the NCAA Championships last season to earn All-America honors, and Erik Spjut, a two-time NCAA qualifier (once at 125 pounds, once at 133). Neibert will move up to 149 pounds this season, while Spjut stays at 133.

The rest of the lineup will feature a smorgasbord of freshmen, wrestlers who have been in the program but haven’t been able to crack the starting lineup yet, and veterans who were up and down a year ago. Though not necessarily proven, they give Dresser confidence.

“At the end of the year, our expectations will be the same,” he said, meaning another top-10 finish at the NCAA Championships. “If we want to end up at the top, then that’s the natural progression.

“I’ve got to get these guys thinking the way I think, and I just believe in a lot of them. We’ve got a lot of guys who can step on the mat and have the ability to be an All-American. Last year, 40 percent of our team was All-Americans. That’s a big feat. That says a lot about the mentality of your team.”

Here is a closer look at each weight class for this year’s squad:

125 pounds – Freshman Joey Dance takes over for Garnett in this weight class, and Dance has the Tech wrestling room buzzing. The young man from Christiansburg, ranked a top-10 recruit by every wrestling publication, has been dominant in practices, and he often works out against guys heavier than him to get him ready for the season.

“There is going to be a lot of hype around Joey, but from everything we’ve seen so far, the hype is legit,” Dresser said. “This dude can wrestle, and he’s tough. Fans are going to love watching this guy compete.

“It would not surprise me if, at the end of the year, he’s wrestling on Saturday night at the NCAA tournament. He’s going to have to make some adjustments. One thing when you’re that confident in yourself, you don’t understand the little things – keeping your weight down, getting the right amount of sleep, etc. He thinks he’s invincible. That’s what makes him good, but that also makes him vulnerable. He’s got to be up every weekend.”

Tech lacks depth behind Dance in this weight class, so keeping Dance healthy remains paramount.

133 pounds – Spjut returns for his final season and gives the Hokies a proven veteran presence in this class. The two-time NCAA qualifier won a match at the NCAA Championships in 2012 and is 52-34 overall in his career.

“Spjut is a veteran,” Dresser said. “He’s proven. He’s had a good career, but not a great career. I want to see him perform and see if he’s made strides. I want to keep this weight class open and see if he’s made strides.”

Spjut cannot rest because Dresser has two terrific freshmen waiting in the wings in Dennis Gustafson and Kevin Norstrem. Gustafson, from Woodbridge, Va., won a state title in North Carolina in 2010 and in Virginia this past season after his family moved to Northern Virginia. He was rated as a top-100 recruit by every wrestling outlet.

Norstrem, from Brandon, Fla., was rated a top-20 recruit by both Amateur Wrestling News and D1CollegeWrestling. He went 229-3 in his four years at Brandon High School.

“Our intention is to redshirt both of them, but we want to see how those guys progress,” Dresser said.

141 pounds – As stated earlier, Carter moved up to this weight class from 133 pounds. He returns after a redshirt year, but kept himself in shape by wrestling unattached in certain events. He finished in third place at the NYAC Holiday Invitational in New York and in fourth at the Midlands. He also won a bronze medal in the men’s freestyle at the Cerro Pelado International in Cuba.

“It’s hard to sit a guy out who is that good, but he was in between weights, and we felt he needed a year to develop and get better at some things,” Dresser said. “He achieved everything we wanted him to in the offseason, every goal we set for him.

Kevin Dresser thinks that 2012 NCAA qualifier Chris Moon, who
took a redshirt year last season, is more than capable of filling
the void left by two-time All-American Pete Yates at 165 pounds.

“Devin’s biggest issue will be getting used to being that light again and competing that light. He hasn’t been that light in a while. He’s having to cut weight. He’ll have to adjust to that weight. If you don’t cut your weight right, it could be a factor late in the match.”

Gerald Ronnau, a freshman from Midlothian, Va., backs up Carter in this class. He placed fifth at the Group AAA meet last season.

149 pounds – Dresser faced an interesting dilemma heading into preseason practices, as Neibert outgrew the 141-pound class and Nick Brascetta, an ACC champion and an All-American last season, returned in this class. So Brascetta, who went 31-7 last season as a sophomore, will take a redshirt year this season, just as Carter, Moon and Penny did last season.

“He’s really a tweener [between 149 and 157],” Dresser said of Brascetta. “We want to get him bigger and stronger. We’ve got an All-American backing him up in Zach Neibert. We’ve got two All-Americans at that weight, so it makes sense to do that. Nick looks good right now, but it’s going to be a struggle for him to make that weight.”

Neibert went 20-12 last season, finishing second at 141 pounds at the ACC Championships. But at the NCAAs, he finished in eighth place to earn All-America honors for the first time, beating three guys seeded higher than him.

“’Gamer’ is the word for Zach Neibert,” Dresser said. “So far, he hasn’t been a guy that lights you up in the season, but when it’s postseason, he’s one of the most dependable guys we’ve ever put on the mat.”

157 pounds – This might be the weight class that is most up in the air for Dresser, as he attempts to replace a guy who won 112 matches in his career in Dong. The battle for the job will be between Sal Mastriani, a redshirt freshman from Towaco, N.J., and Chad Strube, a redshirt sophomore from Frederick, Md.

Mastriani came to Tech as the No. 13 wrestler in the nation at 152 pounds according to InterMat. He went 41-1 his senior year of high school and 139-20 for his career. Strube went 15-8 as a freshman before taking a redshirt year last season.

“Sal Mastriani placed in every open tournament we put him in [last season], and then we’ve got Chad Strube,” Dresser said. “Both those guys had a lot of success last year at the open level. So we’ll have a competition there. I think Mastriani is a slight favorite at this point, but both of those guys bring something. Mastriani brings athleticism and toughness, and Strube brings a real funky style. He’s hard to wrestle.

“I’ll keep the door open. It’s a long season. We’ll see who can grind it out.”

165 pounds – Yates’ departure leaves the biggest shoes to fill, as he won 131 matches in his career – second on the Hokies’ all-time list. But at least Tech gets some experience in the form of Moon, who went 19-15 two years ago when he qualified for the NCAAs at 174 pounds.

“He had a great, great redshirt year,” Dresser said. “He placed and won in a lot of open tournaments. He was an NCAA qualifier two years ago at 174, but I think 165 is more his wrestling weight. He’s ranked in the top 20 in a couple of polls. I think he’s under the radar, but he might not be under the radar for long.

“He’s a guy we need to count on. If we want to achieve big things this year, Chris Moon is a guy who needs to help us get it done.”

David Bergida, a sophomore from Belle Meade, N.J., backs up Moon. He went 10-12 in his first season with the Hokies.

174 pounds – Austin Gabel, a redshirt sophomore, was solid at 174 pounds for the Hokies last season, going 22-13 and qualifying for the NCAA Championships. He went 2-1 at the Championships before suffering an injury in a match against Northern Illinois’ Matt Mougin that ended his tournament. He gives Tech a veteran presence at this class.

“Austin Gabel really finished the season well. He’s a great defensive wrestler,” Dresser said. “He’s hard to score on. We worked on offense in the offseason. He needs to get some more offense. He lost a boatload of close matches to some really good wrestlers, and we’ve got to turn that around this year. He’s got to figure out a way to win those.”

Gabel will be pushed this season by freshman Zach Epperly, a teammate of Dance’s at Christiansburg High School. Epperly won four state titles and arrived at Tech as the No. 26 overall recruit in the nation by InterMat (No. 4 at 170 pounds as a senior).

“Zach’s had a great summer and great preseason,” Dresser said. “I think giving him a redshirt year is the best thing. But we’re in good shape there at 174.”

Brooks Morrison, a sophomore from Dallastown, Pa., is also in the mix. He went 8-7 last season.

184 pounds – Nick Vetterlein returns at 184 pounds after a season in which he went 17-14 and qualified for the NCAA Championships. The redshirt senior finished fourth at the ACC Championships.

Another redshirt senior, John Dickson, is battling Vetterlein. Dickson took his redshirt year last season.

“Nick Vetterlein is super athletic, but he needs to get mentally tougher,” Dresser said. “Dickson is real tough, but is a little limited wrestling-wise. We’ve got a contrast in styles. It’ll be interesting to see who gets the spot by the end of the year, but that’s another weight class that I think will be up for grabs for a good portion of the year.”

197 pounds – Dresser hopes this is the year for Penny, who finished second at the ACC Championships two years ago as a heavyweight. Penny tried to get big enough to remain a heavyweight, but his body structure limited his ability to put on weight, and the 197-pound class seems to be a better fit for him.

“We’re excited to have Chris back after a redshirt year,” Dresser said. “He experimented at heavyweight, but we couldn’t get him heavy enough to make him effective there – not that he didn’t try. It’s not always easy to gain weight when you’re frame is not meant to do that.

“He’s having to work a little bit, but he’s doing a great job at maintaining his weight. He’s super, ultra talented. It’s his time. He’s got a lot of experience. He needs to make a decision that he’s one of the best guys in the nation. If Chris makes that decision, he could have a great year.

“Just like at 165 and 184, we need those fourth- and fifth-year guys to step up for us.”

Bobby Lavelle, a junior from Holland, Pa., serves as the backup to Penny, but four or five others add depth as well.

Heavyweight – Ty Walz gets the first shot at taking over for Marone, who was a sixth-year senior last season. Marone went 91-48 in his career, but his most memorable moment came last season when he won his match to give the Hokies’ the team title at the ACC Championships.

Walz, a redshirt freshman from Cleveland, Ohio, reminds Dresser of Marone in certain aspects. He won a state title as a senior in Ohio – a good state for wrestling.

“He may be just a little bit bigger than David,” Dresser said. “He had a good true freshman year last year, and he’ll be a redshirt freshman. He’s got a lot of athletic ability. It’s just a matter of him getting some confidence and winning some matches. He’s going to be competitive for us right away. He’s got a lot of tools. He just lacks the experience.”

Dan Garwood and Dawson Peck add depth to this weight class. Garwood, a junior from Mullica Hill, N.J., went 19-12 last season, while Peck is a true freshman.

InterMat tabbed the Hokies as its top ACC team, with Maryland coming in at No. 16 in InterMat’s preseason poll. North Carolina (No. 21), Pittsburgh (tied for No. 22) and Virginia (tied for No. 22) also made the publication’s top 25.

But the Hokies need to improve to get where they want to go – to the top of the ACC by March 8, the date when they serve as hosts of the ACC Championships.

“Everyone needs to get 1 percent better every day,” Dresser said. “It sounds easy, but it’s easier said than done. We’ve got to continue to do that as coaches and as a team. One percent better means that you’re learning consistency. There are a lot of days before the NCAA tournament. If we can get 100 percent improved between now and March, we’re going to be right in the thick of it.”