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No. 13 matmen begin grueling season Saturday

Despite losing several key 2012-13 contributors, Garland tips veterans, talented newcomers to propel squad

For No. 13 Virginia, the 2013-14 wrestling season kicks off with a quad-meet against Anderson, Gardner-Webb and West Virginia this Saturday in Memorial Gymnasium, giving the matmen their first chance to showcase the fruits of countless hours of practice.

Coach Steve Garland is without the services of Jedd Moore, Matt Nelson, Matt Snyder, Mike Salopek and Derek Valenti — all spring 2013 graduates and key contributors to last year’s team.

Valenti remains with the program, but he now wears a polo shirt and khakis instead of the familiar singlet. Garland offered the 2011 All-American a position as assistant coach.

“The decision to bring back Valenti was as easy as they come,” Garland said. “We still have all the pizazz and passion that he brings daily.”

The departure of five fifth-year seniors presents a daunting challenge for Garland. He must replace not only their in-match production, but also their presence in the locker room and practice.

“It was a really tough loss, and we’re still feeling the effects of it,” Garland said. “We’re doing the best we can to move forward, and there have been some positives come from it.”

As is often the case, the leadership issue has resolved itself internally. A pair of redshirt juniors, 2013 All-American Nick Sulzer and Gus Sako, appear to be emerging as Virginia’s modest, but hardworking leaders.

“Losing those guys is never easy,” Sulzer said. “We have a good group of seniors that have stepped up. People may not realize how big an influence they are because they don’t have that All-American status, but they are making huge impacts.”

Garland restocked the shelves with an wide array of talent from his 2013 recruiting class. WIN Magazine ranked the Cavaliers’ freshman class as the eighth best in the nation — the accolades of these nine wrestlers could fill up several pages.

“You may not see the fruit of this class right away, but you are going to look back 10 years from now and know that was a heck of a group,” Garland said.

Last season, Garland boasted that he compiled one of the strongest schedules ever at Virginia. This year, he upped the ante. Virginia travels to the Hokie Duels in mid-November to wrestle Kent State and Wisconsin, two teams receiving votes in the coaches’ poll. The Cavaliers follow up with a showdown with No. 7 Virginia Tech inside John Paul Jones Arena. The team competes in three elite tournaments, the Las Vegas Invitational, the Southern Scuffle and the Virginia Duals, before beginning the ACC dual season in earnest Jan. 17 against Duke.

“In order to get the best competition, there are a few events you have to go to,” Garland said. “Our competition schedule is probably the toughest it has ever been. It is insane. Trust me, I’m worried about it.”

Saturday’s quad-meet serves as a tune-up event before the Cavaliers head out to conquer the wrestling world. Home field advantage was something Nick Sulzer never considered, but the recent success of the No. 1 women’s soccer team in Klöckner Stadium has changed his mind.

“I never realized how big an impact wrestling at home could have,” Sulzer said. “When you see 4,000 come out to see the women’s soccer team, it is really exciting. Watching them has sparked a new love and appreciation for Mem Gym and its atmosphere.”

Garland and the team are certainly craving a packed house this Saturday.

“We want our fans to come out so they can see the work we put in,” Garland said. “This quad-meet is basically a huge campaign for our program. We are excited to be in our home and show them who we are for 2013-14.”

Action begins at 10 a.m. against Anderson.

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