Story Links

The Virginia wrestling team has turned some heads during the first few weeks of the season, posting a 7-1 record while winning over two-thirds of its individual matches. Three UVa wrestlers Rocco Caponi (No. 7), Eric Albright (No. 9) and Michael Chaires (No. 20) are ranked among the top 20 nationally at their respective weight classes, as the young Cavaliers (with five freshmen and just one senior competing regularly) have begun to lay the groundwork for one of the best seasons in program history. In this edition of On the Mat, head coach Steve Garland reflects on the season to this point and looks forward to the 2008 portion of this season’s schedule.

Q: Your team has had a great start to the season. Tell us about how things are going so far.
I don’t know if the fall semester could have gone any better than it did. We’re 7-1 and obviously it would be nice to be undefeated, but the one match we lost was to No. 5 Michigan, who is a national powerhouse. Our 197-pounder (Brent Jones) was beating their kid 6-5 and got hit with a home-run move and got spladled and pinned. If he wins that match, the entire match would have come down to heavyweight. The other thing about that dual was (freshman) Nick Nelson lost in triple overtime to a wrestler who won the Las Vegas tournament and is now ranked seventh in the country. Again, it shows you how good these kids are.

Q: How have all of the extra matches that you scheduled benefited the program?
The main thing I have said since the start of the start of the season is that my main objective was to get the kids as many matches as possible. Well, objective completed. If you look at our record form and see how many matches our kids have gotten, you know you’re doing something right. When you have a true freshman who is 19-6 in Matt Bonson, it is impressive. When Mike Sewell is 16-3 and the first semester last year he was around 5-5, then you know things are going in the right direction.

When I was here wrestling, there was a mentality that you weren’t going to wrestle unless you absolutely had to. Now the kids not only know they have to wrestle, but they enjoy it. They can’t wait to get to these open tournaments and compete. Now everybody is trying to get better. There’s a sense of pride these guys have in the program that is imperative to being successful. Our guys are proud to put on their warm-ups and strut our school colors. For me, it’s the philosophy that I like. I don’t care so much about the wins and losses I care about the way we compete and that they are getting better. Across the board, you look not just at our winning percentage and how good they are, you look at how many matches they competed. That’s what I think has been our biggest success this semester.

Q: You took nearly the entire team to the open tournaments. How has that helped the team as a whole?
Everybody was wrestling and getting better. And that is showing in our wrestling room. The level of technique and intensity is heightened in the room because the only way you get better in wrestling is to actually compete. Practice is important, but real competition is how you make the biggest gains in my opinion.

Q: Have you had any problems with injuries thus far?
We’ve had a few injuries here and there, but nothing too serious. That’s always a big plus. Anytime you can get out of a semester where you wrestle eight duals and three tournaments and you have no major injury concerns, that is great. Not only did we get lucky, but our kids showed they are tough too. A lot of times injuries are a result of fatigue and not taking care of your body. Our guys must be doing something right. Our trainers must be doing something right. I like to think my staff is doing something right. I also think the big man upstairs also has given us a little luck too.

Q: The freshman class was hyped up coming into the season and ranked among the top 10 nationally. Have they been everything you anticipated?
You talk so much about the freshmen in all the press releases, and I’ll brag to anyone who will listen about what type of kids they are and their character and work ethic. They validated everything I have been saying and have been everything we hoped. Nick Nelson lost 3-0 to the No. 2 guy in the country and he was in some great scrambles and was right there with him. He lost in triple overtime to Kellen Russell (of Michigan), who won the Las Vegas tournament and beat four nationally-ranked guys. Michael Chaires is nationally ranked in one poll after a semester and has wrestled some great competition. Chris Henrich has battled with the big guys as a true freshman at his weight class. Matt Bonson has 19 wins. The list goes on and on.

One major goal behind working so hard in recruiting is that new recruits raise the level of performance of the older guys. There you go Mike Chaires is pushing Mike Sewell and all of a sudden Sewell is 16-3 after going 8-11 last year. He got better because you have to have guys pushing each other. Our older guys, whether they admit it or not, have benefited in a very big way from our younger class. Another example is Kyle Artusio, who took fourth at the Penn State Open in large part because of the level of competition every day in our room. He’s been sharper because of that competition. He wants it more and is performing better in my opinion because of the depth at his weight class.

Q: How have the older wrestlers responded to the increased competition from the freshmen?
Look who Eric Albright has to work out with every day Kellon Balum, Nick Nelson, Ross Gitomer, Steve Garland, Scott Moore. He’s getting better because of who he’s training with in our room. Scott Moore and I wrestle live just about every day. Not only does he have two coaches to wrestle with, he’s got this plethora of guys to go with. He’s only getting better because of that. Last year, Rocco Caponi was struggling for workout partners. Now his best workout partner that he works out with every day is Chris Henrich. Again, there is that freshman influence. That has just made him better. Rocco also is our lone seasoned veteran. He is a guy who has been there, done that. He’s a two-time NCAA qualifier who is coming into his own and knows his own style. He makes guys wrestle into his strengths. He does that really well.

Q: Looking forward, the ACC is much strong this year. What do you expect out of the conference in the coming months?
The ACC only has 14 NCAA qualifiers, but luckily this is the last year for that system. That isn’t going to go too far this year. The ACC isn’t what it used to be. NC State has the No. 2-ranked wrestler at 149 (Darrion Caldwell). We have two guys in the top eight. Maryland is doing awesome this year and beat Michigan earlier this year. They have so many good individuals. North Carolina has a lot of good guys. Virginia Tech has three guys nationally ranked and they have a heavyweight that could arguably be an All-American as a freshman. It happened really quickly, but you bring in the right recruits and good things happen. It’s only going to get tougher and our conference is only going to get better.

We have our work cut out for us, but now we can switch the philosophy for the rest of the year to where we aren’t as concerned about getting the guys as many matches but peaking the guys better than last year and also managing injuries.

Q: Could you talk about the remaining schedule and the challenges you still have to come?
We have the Southern Scuffle, which arguably is the best tournament in the country outside of the Las Vegas tournament. It is an awesome experience for our guys, and we get another push of ranked opponents. We have a lot of tough individual duals coming up. At the Virginia Duals, Illinois, Penn State and Oklahoma State are all there and are possible opponents. At the Virginia Intercollegiates, Old Dominion is nationally ranked. We have road duals at Appalachian State and UNC Greensboro, and they each have three guys nationally ranked.

The anxiety level is going to kick up a thousand notches. If these guys thought the first semester was hard, just wait until the second semester. These matches at the end of the year are where you find out what your guys can do and see how they respond to pressure.

Q: Your first recruiting class was ranked in the top 10 and the next class is impressive as well. Tell us about them.
I think our class next year is another phenomenal class. We’ve got some really talented guys. Joe Trause is probably going to be a three-time state champ in New Jersey. There have only been a handful of them in the history of the state. He’s just a freak of nature who is ridiculously talented. Jedd Moore is the No. 4-ranked wrestler in the country at 152 pounds. We saw him wrestle once and knew we had to have him. We fell in love with him, and not only is he a good wrestler, he’s seriously one of the nicest kids you’re ever going to meet. We have another top-five recruit out of Ohio, Adam Cogar, who is a 215-pounder who can wrestle anywhere from 184 to 197. That’s a big deal for us too because we need big guys.

We’ve got Mike Salopek from Pennsylvania, who is going to be another really big addition. He is an upper weight who wrestles like a light weight. A lot of coaches shied away from him, but we think he has a lot of ability. Derek Valenti comes from great bloodlines and is just starting to scratch the surface of his talents, and Dan Clarke is another guy who I don’t think enough people know about. He set the New Jersey state record for pins and is really just beginning to see what he can do.

We’re really excited to have all of them coming here, and we aren’t done yet. We still hope to add a couple more guys and finish with another top-10 national class.

Q: You play host the first-ever college wrestling event at John Paul Jones Arena on Jan. 5. That has to be quite a thrill.
We are very excited to be hosting the Virginia Intercollegiate tournament in the beautiful John Paul Jones Arena. It is not often that any wrestling program gets to compete in a venue like the JPJ. We have our administration to thank for making this event happen and our marketing team for putting together a one of a kind wrestling experience.

Print Friendly Version