Wrestling tangles with adversity, enjoys banner year

No. 12 Cavaliers now gear up for ACC Tournament


Redshirt junior Nick Sulzer is 30-1 in 2013-14.

This was banner season for 12th-ranked Virginia wrestling. The Cavaliers (18-3, 5-1 ACC) recorded the second-most wins in program history, made then-No. 8 Virginia Tech their highest-ranked victim ever while snapping an eight-match losing streak to the Hokies, and captured their first Virginia Duals banner.

With the ACC tournament lurking around the corner, it would be easy to look at the team’s outstanding results and forget the uncertainty which shrouded Virginia’s lineup in the preseason.

The Cavaliers entered the season with four departed starters — Matt Snyder, 2011 All-American Derek Valenti, 2013 All-American Jedd Moore, and Mike Salopek. These four outstanding wrestlers had a combined 341 dual victories to their credit. Additionally, former freshman sensation George DiCamillo, who set the freshman record for dual wins with 33 in 2012-13, would sit out the season as a redshirt.

Coach Steve Garland charged sophomore Nick Herrmann, 125 pounds; redshirt sophomore Joseph Martinez, 133 pounds; No. 11 redshirt junior Gus Sako, 149 pounds; No. 14 redshirt sophomore Blaise Butler, 157 pounds; and redshirt sophomore Zach Nye, 197 pounds, with replacing all of the lost production. It is worth noting that Sako was a starter and NCAA qualifier in 2012 before sitting out the 2012-13 season.

However, injuries prohibited the Cavaliers from sending out their “A” team. Redshirt junior Derek Papagianopoulos suffered a year-ending knee injury on the season’s first day, Sako missed significant time with knee problems, and redshirt senior Jon Fausey missed two weeks of ACC action.

“We haven’t had our full projected lineup in the entire year,” Garland said. “But look at all the guys who have stepped up. Nothing went according to plan this year, but it has been pretty special.”

The combined assault of graduation and injuries had the potential to ruin the season before it took off, but Virginia was able to find replacements and slap a Band-Aid on the lineup when necessary.

On the whole, Herrmann, Martinez, Butler and Nye met and surpassed the goals set for them in their maiden voyage as starters. The quartet put up a combined record of 65-34.

“We’re a full team,” Sako said. “We have guys whose names may not be known, but they are able to fill the lineup when they’re needed. Herrmann is a freak. He took his bumps at first, but then he realized his own potential.”

Virginia’s grizzled veterans have buttressed the team throughout the season. No. 15 redshirt junior Joe Spisak has been the giant killer, recording three victories against returning All-Americans to date. Ninth-ranked redshirt senior Stephen Doty has been rock solid for the Cavaliers, posting a 17-4 record, including a 5-1 ACC tally.

But no wrestler could match the results of redshirt junior and second-ranked 165-pounder Nick Sulzer. Sulzer had a season for the ages, going 30-1 and winning 22 of those bouts by either major decision, technical fall or pin fall. Sulzer, an All-American in 2013, has been the unquestioned leader of this team all year.

“Nick tries to score as many points as he can,” Garland said. “He is focused on wrestling his best. He knows he’s gifted, but he also knows how hard he works. When he steps on the mat he is freed up to just compete.”

The Cavaliers wrestled many big matches this season, but two stand out for their role in defining the team. On Nov. 24, Virginia handed the Hokies a 19-16 loss, ending more than five years of frustration. Knocking the proverbial monkey off their backs generated a tidal wave of confidence that propelled the team into the grueling middle portion of their schedule.

“We always said we were finally going to beat Virginia Tech, but we always fell short,” Sako said. “But this year we showed up and battled.”

Exactly two months later, Virginia fell 25-9 to then-No. 8 Pittsburgh. This loss snapped a six-match winning streak and was characterized by a lack of effort from the Cavaliers — the Panthers didn’t outwrestle Virginia, they outfought them. The lessons learned from the Pittsburgh match reset the winning mentality of the team and reconfirmed their commitment to battle every day like their life depended on it.

“The loss to Pittsburgh was good for us in many different ways,” Garland said. “I thought we were a little puffed-up and needed to get smacked in the mouth. Thank you, Pitt, I hated every minute of it, but we came out better for it.”

In a week and a half the Cavaliers take to the mats in Blacksburg at the ACC Championships hoping to add to this illustrious season.

Published February 25, 2014 in FP test, Sports

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