Matmen crave conference title
Team looks to follow programís most successful regular season with postseason triumph Saturday
After finishing this season with the highest winning percentage in program history, the No. 20 Virginia wrestling team turns its focus to the postseason. The squad travels to Chapel Hill, N.C. Saturday as the 2012 ACC Wrestling Championship's No. 1 seed.
Virginia (11-1) also enters Chapel Hill with four individual No. 1 seeds, including redshirt junior Matt Snyder, redshirt senior Nick Nelson, sophomore Gus Sako and redshirt sophomore Jon Fausey. Yet despite the team's stellar regular season campaign, Virginia coach Steve Garland understands past wins mean little without postseason success.
"Technically speaking it was the best season in the history of the program," Garland said. "But I'm trying not to focus on it because I want our guys to realize that last year we set a record for dual meets with 19 wins, but we didn't win ACCs so it was all for nothing."
The Cavaliers last won the title in 2010, but are seeking to rebound from their disappointing third-place finish during last year's tournament at John Paul Jones Arena. Virginia ended with 69 team points at that tournament, behind ACC-champion Maryland's 94.5 points and in-state rival Virginia Tech's 82.5.
Although all 10 Cavalier wrestlers placed in the top four of their respective weight classes last year, only five earned automatic qualifying bids to the NCAA Tournament. None of Virginia's four finalists took home a gold medal in 2011.
This year, however, No. 7 Nelson believes the Cavaliers are the favorite to take home the team title.
"In the past, someone always had to really step up at ACCs to help the team out," Nelson said. "This year... if everyone does their job, we'll walk away with the team title. I know that we're all ready to go, it's just a matter of everyone taking care of business."
Last year, Nelson returned to wrestle in the ACC Tournament shortly after missing two months of competition with a shattered elbow. He went 3-1 and captured third place at the event, earning an automatic qualifying bid to the NCAA Tournament. Nelson was also an NCAA qualifier in 2009 and an ACC runner-up in 2008, but he doesn't believe his postseason experience will help to quell any pre-match anxiety.
"As much as you say the postseason experience helps, at the end of the day it's still a wrestling tournament, and you're still going to get nervous," Nelson said. "All of that stuff is still there regardless of what year you are."
The Virginia coaching staff holds what Garland calls a "minicamp" to prepare for the tournament, which is designed to fix each wrestler's weaknesses and maximize their strengths. The minicamp also includes scouting and preparation for early-round match-ups, so that all 10 wrestlers have the best chance possible to reach the finals.
"The coaching staff has done a phenomenal job of getting us ready," Nelson said. "This is probably the best training camp we've ever had... and I'm just trying to stick to the plan, trusting my coaches and believing in my training."
Although Nelson said he was not eyeing any potential rematches in particular, Garland had a markedly different approach.
"I'm really excited for [No. 16 redshirt freshman] Nick Sulzer against [No. 8 redshirt junior Pete] Yates from Virginia Tech, if we get that match-up," Garland said. "Nick is a different wrestler now than he was when he wrestled him at Thanksgiving."
Yates defeated Sulzer 6-2 Nov. 27 in a hard fought match at the 165-pound weight class in front of 1,652 fans at John Paul Jones Arena.
Sulzer's match isn't the only one which excites Garland, however, and he also said he expects redshirt junior Jedd Moore's rematch with Maryland senior Kyle John to be a "bloodbath" at the 157-pound weight class. Moore upset then-No. 11 John 5-3 Jan. 29, as the Cavaliers downed the previously undefeated Terrapins at Memorial Gym.
More than individual match-ups, though, Garland said most of the team is excited for the consistently high level of competition at the event.
"That's what's great about our tournament - it is a small tournament, but the anxiety level and the emotion on each individual match makes me collapse when I get home," Garland said. "It's like nothing I've ever experienced in my career."
Garland believes this year's team is one of his best ever, but not just because it boasts five top-20 wrestlers going into the tournament.
"Focus, discipline, and consistency are the three pillars of our program," Garland said. "The consistency component of this team is off the charts. They've made choices as to how they're going to live their lives that I personally believe will make them champions."
The first round kicks off Saturday 11 a.m., with semifinals starting 1 p.m. and finals beginning 7 p.m. All matches take place at†Carolina's Carmichael Arena.