By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Steve Garland is as animated as a sugar-fueled tyke at a birthday bash. And that’s in his calmer moments.
Ask him if he’d like to see his team wrestle at John Paul Jones Arena one day, and UVa’s irrepressible coach practically leaps out of his chair.
“That would be the most unbelievable thing!” Garland says. “That arena is so insanely nice, it’s not even funny.”
For now, the Cavaliers’ home is elsewhere on Grounds, and fans who show up at Mem Gym can expect to see a compelling show. This is Garland’s fourth season as coach at his alma mater, and he’s building a program that he’s confident will regularly produce All-Americans.
In each of the past two seasons, Virginia has finished second to Maryland at the ACC championships. In the latest InterMat team rankings, the Wahoos (7-1) are No. 18 nationally.
“We had one All-American last year,” says Garland, referring to 174-pounder Chris Henrich, who placed seventh at the NCAA meet. “Our goal is to have at least two this year.”
The ‘Hoos were scheduled to wrestle Saturday at UNC Greensboro and at Appalachian State, but those dual meets were postponed because of concerns about the weather.
Next up for UVa is the Southern Scuffle, Dec. 28 and 29 in Greensboro.
At its core, college wrestling is an individual sport, and a coach can struggle to sell his charges on working toward team goals. Garland sees progress on that front.
“It is important for them to be good as a program,” he says. “Our guys watch the rankings. This is when I knew we were getting a lot better in the team area: when the guys looked at the national rankings and saw 18th and they were mad about it.
“They were like, ‘We should be better than that.’ They want to be better. They want Virginia’s name to be out there and respected.”
This is a young squad that should peak in 2010-11. Of UVa’s top performers, only 125-pounder Ross Gitomer, 149-pounder Kellon Balum and 197-pounder Brent Jones are seniors.
Moreover, four of the most talented wrestlers in the program — 141-pounder Nick Nelson, 149-pounder Zach Clemente, 157-pounder Jedd Moore and 184-pounder Jon Fausey — are redshirting, for various reasons.
“Next year should be out of control,” Garland says. “Next year, if we don’t do it, then it’s my fault. Seriously. I’m not going to be able to sleep at night, because we’ve got so many kids coming back.”
Nelson advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals at 141 last season. Before this season, though, “he just came in the office and begged me to redshirt him,” says Garland, a former 125-pounder who was ACC wrestler of the year in 2000.
“At first I was against it, but at the same time I had to take a step back and say, ‘OK, Nick’s got a 3.3 [grade-point] average, he does everything right, he works out three times a day, he never gets in trouble,'” Garland says.
Virtually all of the top wrestlers at 141 nationally this season are seniors.
“He feels like the weight class clears out,” Garland says. “And he feels like when those guys graduate, that’s his shot. He wants to be a national champ. And here’s the trick: People say that, but this kid actually not only believes it, he’s willing to put in the work to get to that point. So when you have a kid that special you gotta work with him, and I worked with him.”
No. 7 Maryland again appears to be the class of the ACC, and No. 24 Virginia Tech is loaded, too. Still, with a lineup that includes such standouts as Henrich, Gitomer, Jones, Balum, Derek Valenti (141), Danny Gonsor (157) and Mike Salopek (184), Garland isn’t ready to concede the conference title.
Henrich and Jones won ACC titles last season, and Balum placed third in the conference. Henrich is ranked No. 4 nationally this season, Jones is No. 11, and Gonsor is No. 16.
Garland was especially pleased with his team’s performance Nov. 28. At the Northeast Duals in Albany, N.Y., Virginia lost 25-12 to then-No. 10 Central Michigan but crushed Hofstra 28-6 and Sacred Heart 48-0.
“Against Hofstra, we probably could have and should have won all 10 weights,” Garland says. “We won eight out of 10, which is unheard of in a dual meet. I don’t care who you wrestle, it’s very hard to do.
“To wrestle that well from top to bottom, for me as a coach, was just a big deal. I was very happy that they were executing techniques that we had been working on for months. It’d be like an offensive coordinator [in football] saying, ‘OK, we’re gonna run this spread offense or we’re gonna run this Wildcat every day for the next four months until we get it right,’ and nobody gets it right in games, and you’re losing because of it. We finally started executing the techniques that we’ve been using.”
UVa’s next home dual meet is Jan. 22 against North Carolina. The long-awaited showdown with Virginia Tech comes a day later, also in Charlottesville.
Expect a standing-room-only crowd for that one.
It’s not JPJ, but Mem Gym is “a fun little arena to wrestle in when it gets packed,” Garland says. “It’s fun, because if you get over 800 [fans], it’s overflowing.”