By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — During Steve Garland’s tenure as its head coach, UVa’s wrestling team has always gotten the better of Virginia Tech at the ACC championships.
In 2007, the former All-American’s first season back at his alma mater, Virginia placed fourth and Virginia Tech fifth at the ACC tournament.
In 2008, the Cavaliers were second — two points behind Maryland — and the Hokies were fourth.
In 2009, UVa again finished second, again to Maryland by two points, and Virginia Tech was a distant third.
The ACC and NCAA tournaments are “really what counts,” UVa junior Chris Henrich said, “but we’re on a quest to become so dominant that there’s no question who’s a better team.”
And that’s part of what makes this weekend important for the Wahoos, who’ll host two ACC dual meets at Memorial Gymnasium. UVa meets North Carolina at 5 p.m. Friday and Virginia Tech at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Any athletic event matching Virginia and UNC figures to be hotly contested, but the Hokies’ visit offers more compelling storylines.
Virginia Tech is ranked No. 14 nationally by InterMat, and UVa is No. 16. For each team, that’s the highest ranking in school history.
And then there’s this: For all of Garland’s tournament success versus Virginia Tech, his record in dual meets against the Hokies is 1-3.
In 2007, UVa hammered Tech 25-9. But the Hokies beat the ‘Hoos 18-16 in 2008, 21-12 in 2009 and, at this month’s Virginia Duals in Hampton, 21-18.
The Cavaliers beat perennial power Michigan twice and Old Dominion once at the Virginia Duals. The loss to the Hokies, though, stung.
“All in all, that was an excellent weekend for us, but that was one huge thorn in our side,” said Henrich, who’s ranked No. 4 nationally at 174 pounds. “Because you have all these positive things, but then really what it comes down to is, everyone wants you to beat Tech when you come back here.
“It’s not the end of the world, but the wrestling community and all of our supporters and alumni want us to beat Virginia Tech.”
In a dual meet, no wrestler can score more than six points for his team, and a victory is more often worth three. In a conference or national tournament, a wrestler adds to his team’s total with each victory.
Neither the ACC nor the NCAA crowns a dual-meet champion.
“Wrestling is a very unique sport in that the regular season is, and really always will be, just preparation for the conference tournament and NCAAs,” Garland said.
“The way wrestling success is gauged in our small world is by producing All-Americans and national champions. Whenever you look at programs, you never ask them what their dual-meet record is, ever. For example, you could have a program go 8-16 during the regular season and have three All-Americans and take 10th in the country. That’s what people remember, that’s what people look for.
“The No. 1 question we get, in every house I’ve ever walked in in 10 years of coaching, is, ‘How many All-Americans did you have last season? How many have you had in the history of the program?'”
For the record, the Hokies are 1-0 in the ACC and 13-3 overall in dual meets this season. The ‘Hoos are 12-3 heading into their ACC opener.
A season ago, Virginia finished 11-11 in dual meets, largely because a string of injuries to key wrestlers often left Garland unable to field a competitive lineup.
“Every team deals with [injuries],” Henrich said, “but not, I don’t think, to the degree we were. But I think going through that adversity with a young team built a lot of experience and gave us a lot of confidence going into this season, knowing that we had a full lineup.
“But with that said, we also need to produce and become successful with this lineup.”
Among the key matchups Saturday will be those at 125 pounds (UVa’s Ross Gitomer vs. Jarrod Garnett), 157 (UVa’s Danny Gonsor vs. Jesse Dong) and 184 (UVa’s Mike Salopek vs. Tommy Spellman).
“There’s a lot of grudge matches, a lot of quote-unquote toss-ups on paper,” Garland said. “In both of these matches. UNC as well.”
The Tar Heels, 1-2 in the ACC, are 3-5-1 overall, but they “match up extremely well with us,” Garland said. “Pay no attention to their record. Dual meets are about matchups.”
Being back at Mem Gym, where they haven’t competed since Nov. 28, should help the ‘Hoos. Admission is free for all home matches, and the 500 fans Saturday will each receive a UVa T-shirt.
“We’re not at home much. and I actually get flak from some friends and supporters about that, but my goal is to get these guys, year in and year out, the best competition possible,” Garland said.
“We’re able to get phenomenal competition a short distance [from Charlottesville]. In the Virginia Duals, we wrestled Oklahoma, ODU, Virginia Tech, and we wrestled Michigan twice, one of the most storied programs in our sport.
“We’re battle-tested. Being at home, finally, what that does is give our guys an opportunity to show what they’ve got in front of their friends and family, in front of their peers. It’s just fun being home. You can sleep in your own bed. You can make weight at your own time, you can control what you’re putting in your body as far as food goes.
“The crowd should amp our guys up, and our guys have typically fed off the crowd. We’re wrestled very well at home in big matches.”
The ACC championships are March 6 in Raleigh, N.C. UVa hasn’t won the conference title in wrestling since 1977, and the breakthrough may not come this year. Not only is Virginia Tech a contender, but Maryland is ranked No. 8.
Still, said Henrich, the defending ACC champion at 174, “I think for this team the sky’s the limit right now. I think we’re realizing that these things do take time, and it takes time to buy into a system. It’s going to take some time for our team to establish the solid core of guys.
“We’re a program that’s still on the rise. Every year we’ve had increased success, and to be honest we’re not anywhere near where we want to be. I think that will take some years, but we’re definitely headed in the right direction.”