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Wrestlers target profitable Las Vegas trip

Vaunted Cliff Keen Invitational field offers opportunity for No. 13 squad, individuals to make statement

The No. 13 Virginia wrestling team travels west this weekend to compete in the 32nd annual Cliff Keen Las Vegas Collegiate Wrestling Invitational. This individual tournament features some of the nation’s best and will be the Cavaliers’ final competition of the 2013 calendar year.

This year marks Virginia’s second consecutive appearance at the Cliff Keen Invitational. The Cavaliers finished seventh out of a field of 32 last season and had three wrestlers place in the top five of their weight classes.

Junior Nick Sulzer was one of the three, capturing third place at 165 pounds on his way to finishing the 2012-13 season as an All-American. Sulzer has been on fire through the first month of the season, going undefeated through nine matches and winning all in convincing fashion. He now sits as the third-ranked wrestler in the country in the 165-pound category.

“[Sulzer] was putting a lot of pressure on himself, but now that pressure is gone [after earning All-American honors],” Virginia coach Steve Garland said. “He knows he’s talented, his work ethic is out of this world, and he wants to be a good steward of the talent he has been gifted.”

An individual tournament the scale of the Cliff Keen Invitational is a unique beast. A deep run through a bracket compounds a high number of matches into two days of wrestling: weight-division champions will wrestle five times, while a third-place finisher will face six opponents. For a Virginia team coping with a number of bumps and bruises, the schedule promises a stiff challenge.

“The duration of the competition is really grueling on your body,” Garland said. “My main concern has been making sure that we are in the best possible shape that we can be.”

The stage lights will be burning brightly at the tournament, which serves as an early season mock-up of March’s NCAA Championships. With the eyes of the wrestling community firmly affixed on Las Vegas this weekend, the Cavaliers have a golden opportunity to make a statement as a team and as individuals.

Virginia had a surprising 2012 season, putting themselves on the map as one of the stronger programs in collegiate wrestling. This year has been no different, and the Cavaliers are hovering on the fringes of the top 10 rankings. A strong showing this weekend will be crucial if the team wishes to ascend to the highest echelons of the sport.

“Many of the top 10 finishers in this year’s national tournament will be in Las Vegas,” Sako said. “We’re knocking on the door. We’re this close to contending for a top 10 position, and this will be a good test for us.”

The event should offer an important opportunity for junior Gus Sako, who took a redshirt year in 2012 and appeared to vanish from the wrestling scene. A strong start to the season has earned Sako well-deserved attention, and if he wrestles to his ability in a 149-pound bracket featuring three top-10 opponents, he is certain to garner nationwide attention.

“This tournament is big for Sako,” coach Garland said. “He can go out and make a name for himself on the national scene, and he is very excited about that.”

Action begins Friday morning.


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