After a record-breaking campaign last season, the Virginia wrestling team returns to the mat Saturday morning at home against Anderson, Rider and Gardner-Webb.
In many ways, the Cavaliers are coming off one of their best seasons in school history, after capturing the ACC title and finishing 15th at the NCAA Championships this past March. Virginia returns seven NCAA qualifiers from last season, including two-time All-American senior Chris Henrich, who finished third at the NCAA Championships in the 174-pound weight class.
"He is actually better than he was last season at this point," Virginia coach Steve Garland said of Henrich. "Our viewpoint on Chris is that he has to win the national title. It's not that it could happen or should happen. It has to happen. That is the attitude we are taking. It is one of those deals where you convince yourself there is no other option. Nothing else is going to be good enough for him."
The Cavaliers will welcome back redshirt junior Nick Nelson and redshirt sophomore Jedd Moore after they both missed last season because of injuries. Nelson ended the 2008-09 season ranked No. 16 at 141 pounds, finishing one win shy of earning All-American status at the NCAA Championships. Meanwhile, Moore won 30 matches as a freshman, also qualifying for the national championships.
Joining Nelson and Moore will be a young crop of talent that will help build depth. The freshman class should help bolster the lower weight classes in particular, which have struggled in recent years because of injuries. Wrestling teams, more so than teams in any other sport, hinge their success on how healthy and injury-free they remain throughout the season because of weight restrictions.
"We have more depth this season, which is going to be great for the dual meets especially going into ACCs and NCAAs," Henrich said. "I just think that having these freshmen here are bringing a level to our program, a new swagger, a new level of competition that we haven't seen before."
With redshirt sophomore Matt Snyder moving back down to 125 pounds after the departure of Ross Gitomer, freshmen Gus Sako and Joe Spisak will vie for the starting job at 133 pounds throughout the season. For the time begin, Spisak will be the starter, having won the internal wrestle-off.
"If you look at us on paper, and the talent, experience and depth we have, we are a very good team," Garland said. "The problem is you approach the season cautiously because one injury can spell disaster. We are only going to be as good and as healthy as we are."
Garland identified Jack Danilkowicz as an impact performer for Virginia this season. The redshirt senior is coming off his best season at Virginia, finishing third at the ACC Championships and qualifying for the NCAA Championships for the first time.
"He is a guy who is going to surprise a lot of people," Garland said.
Joining Danilkowicz is the returning ACC Champion at 184 pounds - redshirt sophomore Mike Salopek - who looks to anchor the upper weight classes along with Henrich. Other returning starters include junior Derek Valenti at 141 pounds and redshirt junior Shawn Harris at 149 pounds.
Virginia will host seven home matches in addition to the ACC Championships at the end of the season, where the Cavaliers will look to repeat as the conference title-holders.
"Our goal is to finish top 10 nationals, and there is no reason we shouldn't if our guys stay healthy and wrestle like they should," Garland said.
The Cavaliers will take on Anderson at 9 a.m., Rider at 10:30 a.m. and Gardner-Webb at noon.