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April 14, 2014

Carter finishes second at NCAAs

By: Jimmy Robertson

Devin Carter became the first Tech wrestler to make it to a championship match at the NCAA Wrestling Championships, and behind his performance, the Hokies finished in the top 10 of the team standings for the second straight year

Devin Carter, an NCAA finalist at 141 pounds, finished his season with an 18-1 record, and the two-time All-American is 89-13 in his career at Tech.

Years ago, William Shatner played Captain James. T. Kirk, the commander of the Starship Enterprise on the show, “Star Trek.” He always wanted to “go where no man has gone before.”

Devin Carter wanted to go where no Virginia Tech wrestler has gone before – and he did exactly that at the NCAA Wrestling Championships held March 20-22 in Oklahoma City, Okla.

Carter, a native of nearby Christiansburg, Va., became the first Tech wrestler in school history to make it to the championship final in a weight class and came just short of becoming the Hokies’ first national champion, falling 10-1 to Ohio State’s Logan Stieber in the title match at 141 pounds.

“It feels good,” Carter said of his runner-up finish. “It feels good to have all the firsts that we had this year – first finalist, first freshman All-American [etc.]. It [the NCAA runner-up] feels good, but it’s not where I want to be. I wanted to be at the top of the podium, clearly, but I wasn’t 100 percent going out there. I knew that going out there, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that I fell short.”

Carter’s runner-up finish, though, enabled the Hokies, who sent nine qualifiers to the Championships, to accumulate 49 team points. As a result, Tech claimed eighth place at the event, marking its second straight top-10 finish at the NCAAs. A year ago, the Hokies finished in 10th.

The finish capped a remarkable season for the Hokies, who entered the 2013-14 campaign having 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 and an All-American at 149 pounds. He elected to take a redshirt year this season.

“If you remember, I told you that I thought we could be really good at the end of the year,” Tech coach Kevin Dresser said. “I thought that, if some guys stepped up, we could be the same team we were last year. That was probably setting the bar high and maybe was a little unrealistic, but I truly believed that we had the individuals that, if they put it all together at the end of the year, they could give us a good team. Fortunately, we got Devin somewhat healthy, and our coaches did a really good job of getting everybody else coached up at the end and we got hot when it counted.”

Of course, none of it probably happens without Carter, who tore his hamstring in December and yet came back three months after undergoing surgery – several months ahead of schedule. He won the ACC title at 141 pounds on March 8 in his first action since the surgery, helping the Hokies to their second straight ACC team title, and then he won his first four matches at the NCAA Championships.

The No. 4 seed at 141 pounds, Carter pinned Buffalo’s Nick Flannery in the first round and methodically beat No. 13 seed Stephen Dutton of Michigan by an 11-7 score. In the quarterfinals, he escaped No. 12 seed Richard Duson of Franklin & Marshall 4-3 to advance to the semifinals of the weight class.

That match sent up a red flag that Carter wasn’t quite right.

“I had really ugly wins,” Carter said. “I had non-dominating wins. The first guy was a good match for me, but the round of 16 [against Duson] was awful. In any other scenario, I wouldn’t have done as badly against him and could have gotten a bonus point there. I was sloppy, I wasn’t smooth, I wasn’t confident and I was getting tired. It was something we anticipated going in.”

In the semifinals, Carter faced a familiar opponent in No. 9 seed Evan Henderson of North Carolina, who had beaten the top seed in the quarterfinals. But Carter had beaten Henderson numerous times before, and beat him again, this time by a 12-3 count.

That set up the championship match against No. 2 seed Stieber, a two-time national champion coming into the match. He got a quick takedown of Carter and then rode Carter for much of the first period. Carter couldn’t manage any offense against Stieber, who went on to record four takedowns en route to his third national title.

Joey Dance, the ACC's Freshman of the Year, won five straight matches in the consolation bracket to earn All-America honors in his first appearance at the NCAA Wrestling Championships.

“Even if I was 100 percent, he would have been hard to escape from and had good rides,” Carter said. “The fact that my leg wasn’t 100 percent and wasn’t stable, and I didn’t have confidence in it, just made it a lot harder.

“My offense was limited. It wasn’t because of pain, but because of confidence. My timing wasn’t down from not drilling all year. I hadn’t wrestled live a lot. I never went [practiced] three days in a row before nationals, so we thought I was going in at 80-90 percent. As we progressed through the tournament, we could see that I was a little less, maybe 65-70 percent. I wasn’t myself out there. I was pushing through it. My offense wasn’t there. My stamina, my conditioning, my bottom work … the whole spectrum was affected a little bit by it.”

That didn’t diminish Carter’s accomplishment, nor that of the Hokies as a team. Tech saw two other wrestlers earn All-America honors – the top eight in each weight class earn All-America status. Joey Dance, a freshman from nearby Christiansburg, Va., lost to top seed Jesse Delgado of Illinois in the second round, but came back through the consolation round to make it to the third-place match at 125 pounds. The 16th-seeded Dance lost 6-1 to No. 3 seed Nico Megaludis of Penn State and came in fourth.

“He surprised me a little bit,” Dresser said of Dance. “I knew he had it in him, but I hadn’t really seen it. The guy I recruited in high school had it in him. I saw him win big matches in pressure situations, but he hadn’t done it much this year. He was seeded 16th and got fourth. That’s overachieving. But he thought the whole time he was going to be an All-American. That’s just how he is. He’s got a tremendous amount of self-confidence.”

Also, Chris Penny, from Virginia Beach, Va., finished in sixth place to round out his collegiate career. The fifth-year senior, who won the ACC title at 197 pounds, claimed victory in his first three matches at the NCAA Championships, including two wins over wrestlers seeded higher. The 14th-seeded Penny beat Pittsburgh’s Nick Bonaccorsi 3-1 in the first round and then knocked off No. 3 seed Morgan McIntosh of Penn State 3-2 in a second-round upset. In the quarterfinals, Penny beat No. 11 seed Nathan Burk of Iowa by a score of 6-3.

In the semifinals, Penny lost 4-1 to No. 2 seed J’Den Cox of Missouri, who went on to win the national title. Penny was pinned in his consolation match by No. 5 seed Kyven Gadson of Iowa State and fractured his shoulder in the process. He forfeited his fifth-place match to finish in sixth.

He finished his season with a 28-13 record.

“Like I’ve said before, he’s a rags to riches story,” Dresser said. “Chris has always had the talent, but early on [in his career], he struggled in believing in himself. The last month of the season, though, he was tough, and he believed.”

Of Tech’s other six wrestlers, Zach Neibert (149 pounds), Chris Moon (165), and Ty Walz (heavyweight) each won two matches before falling in the consolation rounds. Dennis Gustafson, a 133-pound freshman who won an ACC title, won a match at his first NCAA Championships, and Austin Gabel, a 174-pounder, won a match as well. Only 184-pounder Nick Vetterlein did not record a win.

The cumulative efforts of all of them enabled this Tech team to become the best in school history

“I can say that this is the most I’ve ever seen a wrestling team overachieve,” Carter said. “Wrestling isn’t like football, where a couple of things can go in one team’s favor and they can pull out an upset. Wrestling is more set in stone when it comes to team performance. But we had a lot of guys that stepped up and went way beyond what was expected.

“Flowrestling, a media company for wrestling, predicted us to finish 42nd based on our seeds. So coming in and getting eighth was huge.”

Seven members of the 10-member lineup return for next season, and with three more returning from redshirt seasons – Brascetta, Zach Epperly (174 pounds), and Kevin Norstrem (133 pounds) – expectations loom. But Dresser welcomes that.

“Getting a trophy,” Dresser said of next year’s goal. “If you’re in the top five [at the NCAA Championships], you get a trophy, and we need to get a trophy. That’s the message. We’ve got to find 10 guys that want to get a trophy. Right now, no one is redshirting. Everybody is going. I want there to be a sense of urgency to get those spots.”