Graduate student Justin McCoy entered the semifinal of the ACC Championships as a two-time runner-up at the event. With a chance to clinch his fourth-straight appearance at the national meet, McCoy felt the pressure as he took the mat to face North Carolina State freshman Matthew Singleton.
As the match started, you couldn’t see that under McCoy’s ear guards was the mind of a wrestler who battled injuries, redefined his spirituality and took a redshirt year, all in hopes to better his team and his chance of becoming an iconic Virginia wrestler.
McCoy decided to attend Virginia after the coaches introduced him to the wrestling program’s culture engineered by the players themselves.
“I could tell that each guy truly loved their teammates and hung out with them,” McCoy said. “I could just see a bond here among the team compared to other places that I visited.”
Despite McCoy’s investment in the team, his first year proved difficult. As a star in Pennsylvania high school wrestling — winning a state championship in 2017 — McCoy became frustrated with his performances in practice against his teammates. Furthermore, he found adjusting to wrestling year-round challenging after playing three sports in high school.
“At first, I wasn't beating anyone. Everyone was beating me,” McCoy says. “I remember the coaches just telling me the first year to be patient, just keep focusing on getting better and better.”
The accumulation of these adjustments resulted in McCoy redshirting his freshman year. Despite being uncertain about redshirting at first, McCoy trusted the coaching staff and was “on board” with their opinion about his freshman season.
As a turning point that season, McCoy won the freshman division at the Hokie Open Nov. 11, 2018.
“I wasn't wrestling the most high-level, top-ranked guys in the country at that point, but still wrestling other college students and beating them gave me a lot of confidence,” McCoy said.
He finished the season 25-3 at 157 pounds. Building momentum into his sophomore season, McCoy continued to rely on the relationships within the team.
“We basically just try to beat each other up, and then we walk out of the room and go to the locker room, and now we're friends,” McCoy said. “You just create a bond with each other that's incomparable to anything that I've ever experienced.”
One of these key bonds McCoy developed was with graduate student Victor Marcelli, his long-time teammate and roommate. Wrestling at similar weight classes and having entered the program in the same year, the two veterans push each other in practice.
“We've just kind of grown closer and closer as we tackle new experiences together,” Marcelli said. “We've been within two weight classes the past two years, so we hold each other accountable.”
After several adjustments his freshman year, McCoy’s wrestling career was not done changing. McCoy found success wrestling at 157 pounds, finishing second at the ACC Championships in 2021. However, after learning graduate student Jake Keating was considering switching from 165 to 157 pounds, McCoy decided to bump up weight classes his senior season.
“You can cut weight and have the proper nutrition, but it's very hard to do,” McCoy said. “I just feel better when I'm eating well and not having to focus on my weight and more just focusing on what I got to do out there on the mat.”
Despite wrestling against a whole new set of wrestlers, McCoy did not see his success halted by his new weight class. Instead, McCoy improved upon his previous season going 19-4 and finishing runner-up at the ACC Championships.
“He’s competitive, he makes people better around him,” Marcelli said. “When he competes that way, it's contagious.”
However, McCoy was still unsatisfied and continued wrestling with the Cavaliers as a graduate student. Finishing runner-up in consecutive seasons, McCoy says the finishes “stung” as he looked to get over the hump his fifth season.
This leadership for McCoy includes leading by example in the weight room, the mat, and relationships outside of wrestling. Beyond his relationship with Marcelli, McCoy looks to foster a culture of accountability throughout the program as a captain.
“I’m not a very vocal person, so I try to do it with my actions,” McCoy said.
In addition to the added responsibilities as a team captain, McCoy explored how he could shape his faith to work alongside his wrestling career. In previous seasons, McCoy felt that he separated the two.
“It was almost like I separated wrestling from my faith in God for a while,” McCoy said. “Until mostly last year, I just realized that God has literally given me all the gifts and all the opportunities to do what I love to do.”
With all those changes — both personal and wrestling-related — McCoy wrestled in his fifth season at Virginia where he found himself in the ACC Championships once again.
McCoy faced North Carolina State’s Singleton in the semifinals, a matchup that granted the winner a ticket to the NCAA Championships.
“I was nervous for that one compared to the finals,” McCoy said. “It's the top three guys that make it to the NCAAs, so it's a little bit more stressful for that semifinal match because you're like, ‘Alright, let's just do get the job done.’”
McCoy breezed past Singleton in a 6-2 decision, earning him a spot as an NCAA qualifier. In the finals, McCoy wrestled the familiar face of Virginia Tech’s Connor Brady. McCoy and Brady’s wrestling styles worked in opposite ways, with McCoy being more aggressive. Entering the third period, the match looked to shape up in Brady’s favor, being tied 1-1 with McCoy with less than a minute left. However, McCoy completed a takedown with just under 40 seconds left.
“I believe in my scrambling ability,” said McCoy. “When a guy gets to my legs, I believe that I can score off that, I just took advantage of that opportunity.”
The match ended 3-2 in McCoy’s favor, ending his streak of ACC Championships runner-up finishes. Coach Steve Garland was equally impressed and proud of the strides McCoy has made in his fourth year in the program.
“He’s put in a lot of work this year, but the way he won was just flat-out guts,” Coach Steve Garland said. “He just found a way. That’s what it takes at this level.”
After the match, McCoy’s teammates stormed the mat in celebration. Even after a disappointing fifth-place finish as a team, the Virginia wrestlers could not hold back their excitement for their captain.
“Everybody was so joyful,” Marcelli said. “And so everybody sees the work that Justin puts in and kind of the way he pours his heart into it, so I think that kind of lifted everybody up,”
With an extra year of eligibility due to the coronavirus, McCoy is returning with aspirations of climbing up the ACC as a team and being an All-American. But for now, both cementing his Virginia wrestling legacy and experiencing the support from his teammates after the final was overwhelming enough.
“I have a video of it on my phone, and looking back at it, it almost makes you want to tear up a little bit because of how much I care about these guys and how much they care about me,” McCoy said. “It means so much to me.”