The No. 11 Virginia wrestling team welcomes ACC foe NC State to Memorial Gymnasium for a Sunday afternoon contest as it looks to continue its recent streak of strong performances. The Cavaliers (11-3, 2-1 ACC) will try to extend their current 5-1 run in dual meets while protecting their home mat, where they remain undefeated this season.
A win for Virginia would complete a sweep of the three North Carolina schools in the ACC with wrestling programs, which the Cavaliers began last weekend with 24-9 and 38-0 triumphs against North Carolina and Duke, respectively. Sunday’s dominance of Duke may have merited merriment, but the next day the team was back in the practice room working like they were the ones who were shut out.
“When you have a day like Sunday you need to celebrate it,” coach Steve Garland said. “Sure enough, the next day, there was no joy at all because we were fretting about the next match.”
The Wolfpack (3-2, 0-1 ACC), meanwhile, are in the middle of a very average season. New coach Pat Popolizio inherited a team with only 13 upperclassmen and one senior. Virginia’s roster, in contrast, features 22 upperclassmen.
But age is meaningless inside the circle. The Cavaliers are aware they cannot overlook the Wolfpack, especially a team coached by Popolizio. Before moving to Raleigh, Popolizio coached at Binghamton University for six seasons. He transformed the Bearcats from 0-12 duds to a nationally recognized force. Last year, Binghamton finished with a No. 19 national ranking and a runner-up placing in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament.
Garland happens to be good friends with several members of the NC State coaching staff, and he knows many of their wrestlers personally. The familiarity gives Garland a sense of what to expect from this weekend’s opponent.
“They’ve got young kids, but kids that are actually real tough,” Garland said. “Their kids fight. Their kids aren’t going to give up.”
This sense of interminable fight strengthens during conference play when things matter more.
“Whenever there is a conference match there is an elevated sense of effort,” coach Garland said. “They’re a lot better team than most people give them credit for, and they are going to come here ready to fight.”
The Cavaliers will arrive ready to fight as well. They also have the advantage of wrestling at home where they are a perfect 4-0. The benefits of wrestling at home were self-evident last Sunday against Duke. The energy level was palpable in those rare occasions when a match was on the line.
The best example lies with the final match of the day. In the fleeting seconds of a deadlocked third period, redshirt freshman Jimmy Nehls was spurred on by a cheering crowd and ultimately secured the decisive takedown.
“It’s always a lot better to wrestle in your home gym,” Nehls said. “You have your fans [and] you’re in your zone, so it is a lot better.”
NC State’s most dangerous wrestlers appear back-to back in a couple of clusters. Starting at 133 pounds, freshman George DiCamillo will wrestle freshman Sam Speno whose 13 wins are good for third-best on the team. Following Speno will be Tyler Hunt, another freshman with 14 wins.
The most dangerous portion of the match will occur at 157 pounds and 165 pounds. Junior Matt Nereim was an NCAA qualifier last season at 149. He is followed by arguably the Wolfpack’s best wrestler, junior Nijel Jones, who boasts a 21-6 record. Virginia will counter with redshirt sophomore Nick Sulzer.