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Wrestling seeks success at ACC Championships

Matmen face tough challenges at each weight class for conference title

The No. 12 Virginia wrestling team will travel to Blacksburg, Va. for the ACC Championship tournament this Saturday. At stake will be 34 stamped tickets to Oklahoma City for the NCAA Championship the following week, a great deal of pride and the illustrious ACC Championship trophy.

The Cavaliers (18-3, 5-1 ACC) will strive to surpass their second place effort at last year’s tournament and claim their fifth overall ACC tournament title, the first since 2010. But their run to the trophy will not go unopposed with No. 10 Pittsburgh (13-3, 6-0 ACC), No. 16 Virginia Tech (18-5, 4-2 ACC) and unranked Maryland (9-8, 3-3 ACC) bringing their own championship aspirations.

“In August, we adopted the ‘no retreat, no reserve, no regrets’ mantra,” coach Steve Garland said. “Our goal this year was to win the ACC championship and send guys to the NCAA tournament. Now the time is here, and it is a big deal.”

Some of the nation’s best wrestlers will compete Saturday in Blacksburg. Twenty-three ACC wrestlers are currently ranked in the top-20 of their respective weight classes — seven from Pittsburgh, six Cavaliers and three apiece from Virginia Tech and Maryland. North Carolina and NC State each have two.

Virginia’s push begins at 125 pounds with sophomore Nick Herrmann. Herrmann struggled early in his first year as a starter, but was eventually able to right the ship, finishing with a 15-8 record and a 3-3 ACC mark. No. 20 Hokie freshman Joey Dance, the odds-on favorite, defeated Herrmann 5-3 in a close contest in November.

“Early on, some things were weighing heavily on Herrmann,” Garland said. “But we got down in the pit with him and pulled him out. From there he kept figuring out how to wrestle.”

Sixteenth-ranked redshirt junior Joe Spisak has historically put up his best performances under the largest spotlights, and the ACC tournament will be the biggest stage so far this year. Spisak has already toppled four returning All-Americans this season, and would surely love to add an ACC championship at 141 pounds to his resume. North Carolina junior Evan Henderson, ranked No. 10 in his weight class, meanwhile, will want revenge at Spisak’s expense. He is one of the four All-Americans to fall to Spisak — a 4-0 decision on Feb. 7.

“[Spisak] is ready to put on a show,” Garland said. “When he gets to the biggest stage his game rises, and I think we’re going to see a very good Joe Spisak at ACCs.”

No. 14 redshirt sophomore Blaise Butler will look to cap off a breakout season with a podium-placing at 157 pounds. Butler went 5-1 in ACC dual action, with his lone loss coming to Duke redshirt junior Emmanuel Kerr-Brown, ranked at No. 33 in his weight class in RPI. Two more ACC wrestlers in the Wolfpack — junior Tommy Gantt and Pittsburgh redshirt sophomore Ronnie Garbinsky — are in the top 20 in RPI.

Redshirt junior Nick Sulzer, currently ranked No. 2 at 165 pounds, has run roughshod against his competition — a trend no one expects to change in the ACC tournament. Sulzer went 30-1 and a perfect 6-0 in conference, and has the inside track to first place in his weight class.

At 174 pounds, No. 9 redshirt senior Stephen Doty looks to add an ACC championship to his sterling career. Doty, last season’s runner-up at 184 pounds, has been quietly dominant this season, going 25-7 and 5-1 in conference.

A hugely difficult bracket awaits No. 19 redshirt senior Jon Fausey. His 184 pound bracket might be the toughest of the 10, and it includes No. 1 senior Jimmy Sheptock of Maryland, Pittsburgh’s No. 5 redshirt junior Max Thomusseit and No. 16 redshirt senior Nick Vetterlein of the Hokies. Sheptock is the defending champion at 184 pounds, and has not lost a conference match in two seasons.

“I’m in my fifth year, and this is the lowest I’ve ever been seeded,” Fausey said. “This is the fun part of the year for me. My weight class might be deep, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

In what has been one of the greatest seasons in the long history of Virginia wrestling, winning the ACC Championship would place the final garnish on the year. The injuries and adversity which have also filled the season would make hoisting a trophy Saturday night even more special for Garland.

“It’s hard not to get emotional when I think about it because of all the preparation, sleepless nights, injuries and roller coaster rides that go into a season,” Garland said.

The first round begins at 10 a.m.