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Virginia wrestler Justin McCoy’s career reaches twilight

McCoy was a role model for Cavalier wrestlers for five years, and the standard he set will be followed for even longer

<p>McCoy finished as the runner-up at the ACC Tournament twice before reaching the mountaintop in his final season.</p>

McCoy finished as the runner-up at the ACC Tournament twice before reaching the mountaintop in his final season.

During one of the most decorated careers in Virginia wrestling history, graduate student Justin McCoy embodied everything about a top athlete. He displayed an elite work ethic that propelled him from a redshirt freshman to an ACC champion four years later. He carried a passion for the sport that pushed him through grueling practices and heartbreaking defeats — McCoy was the runner-up at the ACC Championships twice — and these struggles made his eventual victories even sweeter. But one trait set McCoy apart from the rest of the college wrestling world — a natural, jaw-dropping athletic ability. 

Coach Steve Garland could hardly describe him as human when asked what made McCoy a special talent.

“He ran like a deer,” Garland said. “He was very, very agile and he was fast. He had very quick feet. “[Justin] had those intangibles, he had those things you can’t teach.”

Despite having a lean build for a 174-lbs class wrestler, McCoy has always been dominant — even against bigger competition. He dominated in baseball, football and wrestling in high school and was a runner-up at FloNationals — a nationwide wrestling tournament — in 2018 during his senior year. He was also a team captain for three seasons of his high school wrestling career, a state champion his junior year and made the Pennsylvania state tournament every year. By all accounts, he was a top athlete right away — Garland saw that after seeing McCoy wrestle for the first time at FloNationals.

“I thought [Justin] was gonna be really good,” Garland said. “I just was blown away by his wrestling skills. He’s very, very athletic … he’s just really good.”

When it came time to commit to a college, there were many schools that approached McCoy. He was sold on Virginia and Garland’s development philosophies. 

“I chose U.Va. because when I did my official visit here, I saw something different,” McCoy said. “I could tell that the coaches really cared about the athletes. They weren’t just caring for us as wrestlers, but also as men.”

From his first day in Charlottesville, McCoy was destined for success. He went 25-3 in his first season, a stretch that included a 16-match winning streak. However, McCoy ended up getting redshirted after the non-conference part of the season was done — he cited the coaching staff’s belief that he was still too small as the key factor in the decision. Despite the sudden disappointment that followed this successful start to college wrestling, McCoy was largely consistent in his approach, keeping a calm mind and faith in his coaches.

“I just tried to trust my coaches, strength coaches, wrestling coaches and like all the people helping me and just rely on them and remember that they know what they’re doing,” McCoy said. “It helped me wrestle free that first year and I had a lot of success. So that gave me a lot of confidence going into this next couple of years.”

As the years moved on and McCoy continued to develop, he moved up weight classes twice. These transitions are difficult for wrestlers, as they have to learn how to wrestle bigger opponents while also adapting to their growing bodies. Despite this, McCoy was practically flawless in transitioning and found it easy to make the jump. 

“I went up to 165 [lbs] and I loved it,” McCoy said. “I loved getting bigger. I think I did well going up, and then again with 174 [lbs] I loved it too. Anytime I got to lift more and eat more I was all for it.”

While McCoy’s dominance on the mat is his most notable trait to the naked eye, he applies his work ethic to all aspects of his life. He is currently finishing up a Master’s degree in kinesiology, serves as a counselor at youth wrestling camps and devotes time to his faith. While balancing this can be hard, McCoy appears to pull it off seamlessly. Garland views him as the model of what a Virginia wrestler should be.

“He leads by example,” Garland said. “He has a 4.0 [GPA] and has had the highest GPA on our team for the past two years … this past season there were no off the mat issues, and he was the guy that you could point to. This is the way that you treat people. This is the way that you behave, this is the way that you eat. This is the way that you sleep. This is the way that you study.”

Before his career with the Cavaliers began, McCoy longed to become an ACC Champion. He fell in the semifinals of the 157-lbs class as a sophomore in 2020. In 2021, he got closer —  a loss to NC State’s five-time All-American Hayden Hidlay in the 157-lbs finals brought devastation. However, he rebounded and got to the finals again the following year, but the heartbreak only grew as McCoy — now a senior — fell to Pittsburgh’s All-American and three-time ACC Champion Jake Wentzel. 

Still searching for the peak, McCoy opted to return for a fifth season in 2023 as a graduate student. It paid off, as he was able to seal the deal and win the tournament in the 165-lbs class. For McCoy, it was pure elation to finally reach the mountaintop in his final year of college wrestling.

“It was amazing,” McCoy said. “It felt like a long time coming, just being in the finals a couple times and then finally getting it done. It was a great feeling, especially to come off the mat, hug coaches, hug my teammates — they all swarmed me right away.”

McCoy’s title win might stick out as the crowning moment of his college career, but when the graduate student looks back on his time with the program, there are plenty of memories that he cherishes just as much. He is leaving Charlottesville with a trophy but also a slew of lifelong companions.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing I’ll look back on is everything,” McCoy said. “The teammates, the coaches, the people I’ve gotten close to, the friends I’ve made for life, that’s the thing I’m so grateful for.”

While McCoy is moving on, the cogs of the Virginia wrestling wheel must keep going. His  departure will leave a hole on and off the mat, but Garland does not see his presence disappearing — future Cavaliers will strive to work and act like McCoy did for years to come.

“The biggest impact is going to be all the stuff he did off the mat,” Garland said. “The fact that he was such a successful student … the fact that his faith means a lot to him … [and] he cared about people, he cared about the coaches, he cared about his teammates.”

McCoy’s future is slightly more certain than that of the Cavaliers — he plans to finish up his Master’s degree and then move into the workforce. His wrestling career may be over, but he is confident that his new career will allow him to continue having a positive impact on the world. 

“I’m looking to go into medical sales,” McCoy said. “I’ve had a lot of help with my trainer and … doctors and everything through my career with the injuries I’ve had, specifically with neck and back injuries. So I hope to be helpful in having people heal from injuries by selling medical devices that surgeons can use.”

Based on McCoy’s reasoning for choosing Virginia and his blossoming into a role model for the team years later, it comes as no surprise that his focus is on helping people. If he puts as much dedication into his next career as he did wrestling for the Cavaliers, McCoy should have no problem making the transition. 


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