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March 13, 2014

Tech wrestles ACC title away from the field - again

By: Jimmy Robertson

The Hokies’ wrestling team dominated at the league meet, winning four individual titles and having four others finish in third place

Chris Penny has bounced between heavyweight and 197 pounds during his career at Tech, but his unselfishness was rewarded when he won the ACC title at 197 pounds at this year’s ACC Championship.

A year ago at the ACC Wrestling Championship, Virginia Tech needed to win the final match to secure the program’s first ACC title.

This year, the Hokies took care of things in much quicker fashion.

Behind four individual championships and four third-place finishes, 16th-ranked Tech roared to another championship in convincing fashion on its home mat at Cassell Coliseum. The Hokies finished with 87 points and cruised past second-place and 10th-ranked Pittsburgh, which finished with 67 points. Virginia came in third with 61.5.

Devin Carter’s title at 141 pounds wrapped up the team title for the Hokies – with seven matches still left – and sent a pretty rowdy throng of more than 2,000 fans into a frenzy. His victory clinched the program’s second title since joining the ACC for the 2004-05 season (11th overall) and gave the school its 18th overall ACC team championship in that span.

The title came as a bit of a surprise for the Hokies, who were expected to be rebuilding this season. Tech lost All-Americans Jarrod Garnett, Jesse Dong and Pete Yates off last year’s team in addition to heavyweight David Marone, whose victory last season in the final match at the ACC Championship gave the Hokies their first team title. Plus, Tech didn’t have Nick Brascetta, last year’s ACC champion at 149 pounds. He elected to take a redshirt year this season.

But everything came together at the right time for this year’s group.

“One weekend, we’d get help from one or two weights, and the next weekend, we’d get help from another two weights, and the next weekend, another two,” Tech coach Kevin Dresser said. “I felt we had our bases covered, but we could never put it all together.

“Obviously, getting Devin back [from an injury] was a spark, and then them believing me that our fans were going to come out and get loud for this really motivated them. We didn’t have a great semifinal round. But when you get six guys to wrestle back and four of those get third [place], that tells you that these guys were drinking the Kool-Aid.”

How dominating were the Hokies? Just ask Virginia coach Steve Garland, whose Cavaliers were expected to make the race for the title a three-horse affair between Virginia, Pittsburgh and the Hokies. Virginia, though, won just two individual titles.

They [the Hokies] were awesome,” Garland said afterward. “They just wrestled fantastic. I can’t remember a tournament being this far apart before. Obviously, they made a statement. We were able to beat them during the year [in a dual meet], but we certainly didn’t outwrestle them [Saturday]. They deserve all the accolades coming their way after what they did.”

In his final ACC Championship, Zach Neibert went out on a grand note, claiming the title at 149 pounds - his first ACC title.

Everything went right for Tech, starting with the return of Carter, who was cleared to wrestle on Wednesday before the Championship. The redshirt junior from nearby Christiansburg, Va., suffered a torn hamstring in a tournament on Dec. 6, and Tech’s sports medicine staff originally ruled him out for the rest of the season. The injury normally requires a six-to-nine month healing process, but Carter’s dogged determination got him back on the mat in 12 weeks – months ahead of schedule.

“I wish I had the words for it,” Zach Neibert, Tech’s 149-pounder, said of Carter’s return. “It’s like one of those scenes that you see in a movie when the tide changes and the team is lifted. I could say that this is all about Devin coming back. The guys did a good job, but it might be all about Devin. We might possibly have won it without him, but we’ll never know.”

“Devin is a machine,” Dresser said. “He’s not human. That machine is only about 75 percent right now. What you saw was 75 percent of Devin Carter. Our job is to get him between 85-90 percent before the nationals. We’re not going to get him to 100 percent, but we’ve got to get him to 85 or 90.

“But nothing surprises me with Devin. He’s a twisted dude – in the right way.”

Carter returned with a vengeance. The top seed at 141 pounds, he received a first-round bye and then rolled past Maryland’s Shyheim Brown in the semifinals, picking up a 24-9 technical fall. In the championship match against Pittsburgh’s Edgar Bright, he slogged out a tough 6-1 victory.

Carter took a redshirt year last season, so he was an outside part of the Hokies’ 2013 championship squad. Yet by winning this year, he became a three-time ACC champion, and after the event, he received the Most Outstanding Wrestler Award.

“Going in, I didn’t know what to expect,” Carter said. “I just wanted to go 100 percent and go all out, like I usually do. It paid off. I’ve still got to get my cardio up for nationals, but I felt good.

“That first match, I was a little nervous, more so than usual, just because I didn’t know what to expect. My leg worked for me, though. I didn’t even notice it when I was out there. I’m feeling pretty good.”

Carter’s return, though, wasn’t the only things that went right. Tech caught a break when the top seeds at 133, 149 and 197 pounds all were upset in the semifinals and put the Hokies in favorable matchups heading into the finals.

At 133 pounds, freshman Dennis Gustafson, the No. 3 seed, rolled through the bracket. He won all three matches by major decision, including the championship match when he destroyed No. 4 seed Tyler Goodwin of Maryland, 11-0. Gustafson had beaten Goodwin in a dual meet earlier this season.

Devin Carter’s return from an injury inspired his teammates at the ACC Championship, and the 141-pounder did his part, winning his third ACC title and earning the event’s Most Outstanding Wrestler Award.

At 149 pounds, Neibert, a No. 2 seed, won his first two matches fairly easily and then squared off against Pittsburgh’s Mikey Racciatto in the finals. He had beaten Racciatto 7-4 in a dual meet in early February, and he took care of business again, winning 3-1 in sudden victory.

His takedown in the extra session accounted for the winning points and gave the redshirt senior his first ACC title. It marked his 13th win in his past 14 matches.

“In overtime, I was thinking it wasn’t about me any more,” Neibert said. “It’s about the team and what it takes to get another ring and another title to build this program up.”

At 197 pounds, Chris Penny, the No. 3 seed, put the icing on the cake for the Hokies. After upsetting Pittsburgh’s Nick Bonaccorsi 4-3 in the semifinals, Penny took on Virginia’s Zach Nye in the finals, winning 10-6. He, too, won his first ACC championship.

Penny actually had lost to Bonaccorsi 8-3 in the dual meet between the two teams in early February, and he had lost to his first-round opponent, No. 6 seed KaRonne Jones of NC State, 2-1 in a dual meet on Jan. 26. But he beat Jones and Bonaccorsi to get to the finals at the ACC Championship, where he beat Nye for the third time this season to claim the title.

“It’s hard to describe,” Penny said. “Things couldn’t have gone any better. My first match and my second match were against kids I lost to earlier in the season, and my third match, I just won the ACC.”

“Chris Penny is a rags-to-riches story – and the riches came [Saturday],” Dresser said. “I don’t know what his record was as a freshman, but it was about 2-27 [actually 3-16]. He figured out how to lose more matches his first year than 10 humans. So he’s a testament to hard work.”

Penny’s championship capped an amazing finals for Tech, which won all four of its title matches. In contrast, Pittsburgh, which sent five guys to the finals, only won one individual championship.

Wrestling in his first ACC Championship, freshman Dennis Gustafson enjoyed the big stage, rolling to the ACC title at 133 pounds by winning all three of his matches by major decision.

The Hokies also racked up points in the consolation rounds earlier in the day. Freshman Joey Dance finished in third place at 125 pounds after beating UVa’s Nick Herrmann 7-4, while Chris Moon bounced back after being upset in the semifinals and clinched third place at 165 pounds with an important 8-2 win over Pittsburgh’s Geno Morelli. Tech’s Nick Vetterlein beat UVa’s Jon Fausey 8-7 in the third-place match at 184 pounds, and heavyweight Ty Walz beat Pittsburgh’s P.J. Tasser 5-2 in another important match, as both he and Moon took away potential points for the Panthers.

“That was huge,” Dresser said of his team’s performance in the consolation rounds. “I said last year that we won the ACC tournament in the wrestle-backs. We were down a lot of points and then we came back in the wrestle-backs and got within striking distance.

“We talked about it a lot. We took some of our guys who were redshirting, a guy like Nick Brascetta, and his whole job was to grab our guys after they lost and re-energize them because the way this tournament is set up, when you lose, you’ve got to wrestle in an hour or an hour and a half, and that’s tough. Some kids don’t get over that. But I thought we did a really good job. Every one of our kids who lost came back that next round and won. That was huge. That’s what won the tournament for us.”

Seven of Tech’s wrestlers automatically qualified for the NCAA Championship to be held March 20-22 in Oklahoma City, Okla. The Hokies may send an eighth guy, depending on whether Moon received an at-large bid at 165 pounds. Moon, who, like Carter, took a redshirt year last season, qualified for the NCAAs in 2012.

Regardless of what happens at the national meet, the Hokie wrestlers won’t soon forget their run to the 2014 ACC title.

“No one gave us a chance,” Penny said. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, Virginia Tech won last year. That was the best Virginia Tech team in a while.’ Then it was like we got these great freshmen and everyone was saying, ‘Next year, we’re going to have an awesome team.’

“What about this team right now? I’m one of the leaders of this team. This is my team. No one gave us a chance. Everyone discounted us. Everyone said we’d get third behind Pitt and UVa, and we showed that consistency, focus and belief compounded together after months and months and months will lead to results. Well, that’s what we have right now.”