By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the InterMat college rankings released before the ACC wrestling tournament, Maryland was No. 10 nationally, and Virginia Tech was No. 14.
That’s nothing to apologize for, especially at a school without a rich tradition in wrestling, but UVa was a definite underdog when it arrived in Raleigh, N.C., for the ACC tournament.
The Cavaliers’ fourth-year coach was more optimistic than most observers. Steve Garland likes his group. A lot.
On the eve of the ACC tourney, Garland addressed his wrestlers.
“I said, ‘This is the team that I believe the most in since I’ve been here.’ Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to win it, but as far as every single kid, when they go out there, I know exactly what I’m getting,'” Garland recalled Monday.
“I’m not going to name names, but I couldn’t say that about every kid in my lineup the last four years. I could walk into this tournament knowing that with all 10 guys, I really believed that. So that’s why I was so calm going in. And that’s what I told the kids.
“I said, ‘That’s the truth, guys. I’m not saying we’re the best team we’ve ever had, or anything like that. What I’m saying is, I know the character and the heart and the determination of this team. I know you guys are not going to give up. I just believe in the way you guys are going to compete.'”
His wrestlers rewarded Garland’s faith. With a remarkable team effort Saturday, UVa totaled 85 points to win the ACC championship for the first time since 1977.
Virginia was the only team to have a semifinalist in each of the 10 weight classes. Two Cavaliers were crowned: junior Chris Henrich at 174 pounds and redshirt freshman Mike Salopek at 184.
“I’ve been around this program for awhile, and to see where this program has come and to be a part of bringing home a title is really special,” redshirt senior Brent Jones said in Raleigh.
“It’s something you’ll never forget and something you will always be a part of. It feels really good to leave your mark on history.”
Maryland, which edged Virginia for the ACC crown in 2008 and ’09, was second with 80.5 points.
Virginia Tech led UVa 78.5-77.5 with four finals remaining, but failed to pick up another point. The Hokies finished third.
Heading into Saturday night’s finals, Virginia had 77.5 points, seven more than second-place Maryland. The Cavaliers had five wrestlers in the finals, but the first three lost: redshirt senior Ross Gitomer at 125, redshirt freshman Matt Snyder at 133 and redshirt sophomore Shawn Harris at 149.
Midway through the semifinals, with his team racking up points, Garland said, he’d thought, “This is it, man, this is ours.”
His confidence grew as afternoon gave way to evening. “And then I’ll be honest with you: Halfway through the finals, I started letting doubt creep in a little bit,” Garland said, “and I was getting really nervous.”
Henrich eased his coach’s nerves. He destroyed North Carolina’s Tommy Ferguson 20-5, a technical fall that earned Henrich a second straight ACC championship and pushed the Wahoos to the brink of the team title.
“He had the eye of the tiger, man,” Garland said of Henrich, who improved his record to 30-2. “He had a look on his face that was scary. It was scary what he did to the kid. It looked like something out of The Matrix.”
The 184-pound final matched Salopek against his nemesis, top-seeded Tommy Spellman of Virginia Tech.
This was their fourth clash of the season. Salopek had won the first, 2-0. In each of Tech’s two dual-meet victories over UVa, however, Spellman had edged Salopek.
Each time, a Salopek victory would have reversed the dual meet’s outcome. But the stakes were much higher when Salopek took the mat Saturday, and he delivered a championship performance.
His takedown of Spellman with 12 seconds left in the third period secured Salopek’s 2-0 victory and set off a frenzied celebration among the ‘Hoos.
“It’s 100 times better than winning an individual championship right now,” Henrich said after UVa clinched the team title. “To be honest, going into the tournament I would not have thought that, but to watch Salopek win that final match, it was amazing to be a part of it all.”
Salopek said in Raleigh: “It’s a great thing for the program. We’ve been a team on the rise for the past few years, and tonight we were able to take that step to the next level.
UVa’s third-place winners were Jones at 197, sophomore Derek Valenti at 141, and redshirt junior Jack Danilkowicz at heavyweight. Finishing fourth were redshirt sophomore Dan Gonsor at 157 and senior Beau Fisher at 165.
Fisher entered the ACC tournament with a 7-10 record. He was unseeded in his weight class — and unfazed by the stage on which he found himself. Fisher knocked off fourth-seeded Ray Ward of N.C. State in the first round and later beat Duke’s Ben Wales.
Danilkowicz, seeded No. 4, edged second-seeded Patrick Gilmore of Maryland in the consolation semifinals, then beat N.C. State’s Eloheim Palma for third place.
“Beau winning two matches,” Garland said, “and Jack taking third, are you kidding me? Beating Gilmore and beating Palma the way he did? That might have won us the tournament right here. Beau and Jack are the guys I hope won’t get lost in the shuffle, because they were two huge pieces.”
Fisher finished his college career with a losing record, but long ago earned his coach’s affection and respect.
“Beau’s the quintessential team guy,” Garland said. “He’s the exact kid you want to coach. You walk in the room, he doesn’t say anything, he’s just working as hard as he always works.
“You say, ‘Beau, we got a guy hurt, you’re in.’
“‘No problem, Coach.’
“‘Beau, you gotta make weight.’
“‘No problem, Coach.’
“‘Beau, you lost the wrestle-off, but it’s not over yet. You might be wrestling again, depending on how this guy performs.’
“‘Well, you’re the boss. Whatever you tell me to do.'”
“I mean, they don’t make ’em like that anymore,” he said. “No kid is like that.”
Asked what the ACC championship means for his program, Garland paused for a moment before answering. He was the NCAA runner-up at 125 pounds as a UVa senior in 2000, and he demands much from his wrestlers.
He stresses the importance “of living their lives a certain way off the mat,” Garland said. “It finally paid off, and the way you live your life, and the way I want these guys to behave, on and off the mat, does matter, and it does pay off, and it is worth something.
“I think that was the biggest thing, to see the guys hugging each other and the genuine joy [after UVa won the title], just watching the guys all interact together. Once the initial adrenalin wore off. I just sat in my chair like a proud dad and just watched them all. That was really neat.
“That’s why I think it means for the program, first and foremost, that this team is officially a family. They’re not just a team that’s quote-unquote on the rise, they’re a good team now, they’re a very good team, and hopefully we know we’re going to put ourselves in a position to never go to this tournament and not be in a position to win.”
Second, Garland said, the championship means a lot to former UVa wrestlers.
“They’ve been waiting for years for this,” he said. “I feel like I did something for them, and I feel like the kids did too. They don’t appreciate it because of their age, but they’ll know some day how big a deal it is.”
Finally, Garland said, the ACC title should resonate with UVa’s “incoming recruits and anyone we go after from here on out. We’ve been able to get some great recruits with really nothing to go on. We just go in their houses and sell Virginia.
“Virginia sells itself, obviously, but I’m talking about the program. It’s not like we have a long, storied history. I’m excited for this next recruiting cycle, to sit down [with prospects] and say, ‘OK, now it’s not Shoulda, coulda, woulda, or We were very close.’
“Now we actually did it. So, hey, I’m not just whistling Dixie. We can do some special things here.”