Dec. 9, 2010

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — You’re leading 9-3 in the second period, dominating an undefeated foe in front of a stunned crowd, moving ever closer to an opportunity to wrestle the next night for the first NCAA title in your program’s history. And then the unthinkable occurs.

Your opponent battles back, pulling to 9-5 and 9-6 and 9-7, and then, with 47 seconds left in the third period, gets a takedown to tie the match at 9-9. With his fans in a frenzy, he adds a point for riding time to win 10-9, and you stagger off the mat.

How do you recover, in less than 24 hours, from such a devastating defeat?

UVa coach Steve Garland asked himself that question — time and again — last spring after his superlative 174-pounder, Chris Henrich, lost to Iowa’s Jay Borschel in an NCAA semifinal in Omaha, Neb.

“It’s my job to worry, right?” Garland said the other day. “So that night was a very rough night of sleep for me, a lot of prayer, a lot of worrying, and I was lying in bed tossing and turning. That’s every coach’s worst nightmare. How can you come back from that? It was hard enough for me to get up in the morning from that loss, and it wasn’t even me that lost.

“But then it’s funny: You look at Chris the next morning, and the kid’s in the zone again.”

Dropped into the consolation bracket, Henrich edged Central Michigan’s Ben Bennett 5-3 in sudden-victory time. Then he destroyed Nebraska’s Stephen Dwyer 10-1 to clinch third place and cap a season in which Henrich finished 35-3.

“A lot of people asked me that: How hard was it to come back?” Henrich said recently. “But to be honest, I would have woken up at 2 in the morning and stepped on that mat if I had to. I was refocused. Within 15 minutes after that [semifinal] match, it was out of my head. I was ready to move on. I was ready to win my next match, and I just knew that the faster I got on the mat, the better it was going to be. I knew exactly what I had to do.

“I had a mental [lapse against Borschel], but the next morning I woke up and felt good. I knew that everybody was sore, everybody was banged-up, and it just was going to come down to who had the most heart, who’s going to win those tough matches, and I was very confident that that was me.”

Henrich has won two ACC championships, both at 174 pounds. He was ACC freshman of the year in 2007-08. He’s the first two-time All-America wrestler in UVa history. (He placed seventh at the NCAAs as a sophomore.) He helped the Cavaliers win the ACC title last season, their first conference championship in 33 years.

In wrestling, only one goal remains for this fourth-year economics major from the Philadelphia suburb of Lansdale, Pa. — an NCAA title.

When Henrich was a senior at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, Pa., the NCAA announced that it would hold its Division I championships in 2011 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philly. He marked that down on his mental calendar.

“I’ve just had my eye on that prize the entire time, working towards winning a national title in Philadelphia, where my whole career began,” Henrich said. “I don’t plan on competing after college. This is going to be it. This would be the icing on the cake, the cherry on the top, whatever cliché you want to say. It’s going to be very emotional.”

Henrich, whose career record is 110-16, is 9-0 this season. He’s ranked second nationally at 174 pounds, behind Cornell’s Mack Lewnes, whom Borschel beat for the NCAA title in March.

“My goal is to win a national title, no matter where it is,” Henrich said. “It’s just an added bonus that it’s in Philadelphia, and I believe that I’m using it in the correct way and not adding pressure to myself, but adding motivation.”

Garland said: “If anybody’s going to be fueled by that, it’s this kid. I think he’s going to feed off it. He’s going to have tons of family, tons of friends. All his high school coaches are going to be there. I think he’s actually going to wrestle as well as we’ve ever seen him, because he thrives on that type of attention.

“We joke with him, but there’s truth to all humor: He likes the spotlight. He likes to be the one stepping up. I mean, every time we need him to step up at a dual meet for a pin, he pins the guy. Every time. At Edinboro this year, the dual meet was going south, quick, and all of the sudden Chris gets up, and everybody knows he has to pin [his opponent], but you don’t say anything to him, because you don’t want to jinx him.

“He pins the guy in the first period and just looks over at me and kind of shakes his head. It wasn’t arrogance. It was just like, ‘I knew what I had to do.’ Now, me, personally, when I was his age, I would have been a nervous wreck. I actually preferred not having my mom watching, not having people watch, because it made me more nervous. He’s not one of those guys.”

Over the past year, Garland said, the coach-wrestler relationship has changed. “I’ve probably said less to Chris than I ever have, because there’s not a whole lot that really needs to be said. He’s gotten to a point now in his career where I almost don’t want to mess him up.”

Nonetheless, the loss to Borschel revealed flaws that Henrich has worked relentlessly to correct.

“The thing we learned the hard way at NCAAs is, look, we need him to keep scoring points,” Garland said. “When he’s attacking, he’s seriously almost impossible to stop. He’s not a defensive wrestler. It’s all mental. There’s no technique to that. When you mentally say to yourself, ‘OK, I’m going to protect a lead,’ or ‘I’m going to shut down or I’m just going to try to finish this match off,’ as opposed to ‘I’m going to keep attacking, attacking, attacking and thinking of nothing else,’ [problems can arise]. That’s what we have him work on.”

Like Henrich’s, Garland’s name is on the list of UVa’s all-time greats in this sport. As a senior in 2000, Garland was the ACC wrestler of the year and the NCAA runner-up at 125 pounds. He appreciates better than most what an NCAA title by Henrich would mean for the Wahoos’ program.

“Winning the ACCs last year was a big-enough weight off our backs,” Garland said. “What do you think having a national champ would be? We go after all the top guys in the country, and when we’re recruiting them, our enemies, our competitors, are saying, ‘Well, they’ve never had a national champ, why would you go there?’ Well, now I could look any kid in the face and say, ‘Yeah, it happened. I was close, I took second, but Chris didn’t. He did it, and you can do it too.’ ”

Henrich’s grandfather Ben Kish played for the Philadelphia Eagles in the ’40s, and Henrich’s father, Mike, was an outstanding football player, too. So Henrich, not surprisingly, gravitated to that sport when he was growing up. But one of his youth football teams included numerous boys who wrestled in the winter, and Henrich followed them to the mats. He felt at home from the start.

“At a very young age, I had a good feel for the sport,” Henrich recalled. “I really enjoyed it. I had a true passion for it and slowly phased out football as I increased my wrestling reps.”‘

He played football as a ninth-grader at LaSalle College High School, then gave up the sport to concentrate on wrestling. LaSalle was where Henrich met Anthony Panzarella and formed a life-changing friendship.

Panzarella, a former James Madison University wrestler, is an assistant coach at LaSalle. “He just very, very subtly inched me and pushed me from the direction I was headed into a more successful, more motivated lifestyle,” Henrich recalled.

“I was just kind of going with the flow of things. I wasn’t training year-round. I was goofing off. I wasn’t getting the best grades. I wasn’t a menace, but I believe that had it not been for him, I wouldn’t be sitting in this seat right now.”

Panzarella said: “Chris was always very talented. I don’t think at that age he realized how good he could ever be … He was a normal goofy kid, just like the rest of them.”

Henrich’s talent was such that average commitment to the sport was likely to make him one of the nation’s better wrestlers. Is that enough for you? Panzarella asked Henrich. It wasn’t.

“He decided at that point that he wanted to be, I think in his words, ‘the best of the best,’ ” Panzarella said. “He wanted to be No. 1 in the country.”

After six seasons as an assistant coach at Cornell, Garland was hired in April 2006 to take over the program at his alma mater. The jewel of his first recruiting class was Henrich, who had transferred after the 10th grade from LaSalle to another Philadelphia-area private school, Germantown Academy, with an outstanding wrestling program.

His classmates at GA included Dave Ebbott, John Barr and Claire Crippen, who now wrestle, play baseball and swim for UVa, respectively. Henrich went 30-0 as a senior and ranked among the nation’s top recruits.

Garland persuaded Henrich to choose not a perennial power but a college whose wrestling program needed revitalization. In 2006-07, Henrich’s senior year of high school, UVa had placed fourth out of six teams at the ACC championships. The Wahoos finished second his freshman season and again when Henrich was a sophomore.

The breakthrough came last season.

“I can’t even express in words how great, just how fulfilling that ACC championship was,” Henrich said.

“I feel like coming here to do that was one of the main reasons why I chose Virginia as a college. And I’m just so proud and so happy with what we’ve done and how Coach Garland has just knocked down every promise he’s made to me since I committed here.”

UVa’s home matches are at Memorial Gymnasium. When the ACC tournament comes to Charlottesville on March 5, however, it will be held at John Paul Jones Arena.

“I think that having ACCs here is going to huge for the program for a number of reasons,” Henrich said. “I think people are going to be blown away by how it’s run, by the facilities that we have, and just set a new standard for us.”

An athlete who did for Mike London’s football team or Tony Bennett’s basketball team what Henrich has accomplished in wrestling would be a veritable Big Man on Grounds, a star with a name, if not a face, recognized by sports fans around the country.

Henrich, 22, goes about daily life in relative anonymity.

“Obviously I could have gone to a school where the wrestlers were celebrities, some Big Ten school or some Big 12 school, or some place in the Midwest where wrestlers are kings,” he said. “But that’s not the most important thing to me. I know at the end of the day that as long as I’m doing the right things and as long as I’m living my life the way that I want to, the only people I need recognition from are the coaches and my family and then some of my close friends. But other than that, I think a lot of people do respect us. I don’t think that they know quite what we do, but I think people who really do give us the time of day do truly feel the recognition for us that we deserve.”

Whether he wins an NCAA title or not, Henrich said, his wrestling career will end in the spring. He could pursue a world championship or an Olympic medal after graduating — or both — but that doesn’t appeal to him.

“I’m interested in a professional life and a career and moving on,” Henrich said. “I’ve loved every second of wrestling since the time I was a little kid till now. And I’m not excited to have it over, but I am looking forward to entering a new chapter in my life.”

He plans to apply to master’s programs at UVa and Duke. Henrich would prefer to enroll in the McIntire School of Commerce’s program and remain at Virginia in 2011-12, helping Garland as a graduate assistant.

He expects to hear back from McIntire in mid-February, about a month before the NCAA championships (March 17-19) in Philadelphia.

Panzarella talks to Henrich several times a week, but mentor never has seen protégé wrestle at the NCAAs. Assuming Henrich makes it to Philly, that will change in 2011.

“I’ll be there,” Panzarella said.

What a scene that could be. Henrich’s Philadelphia dream is to leave his shoes on the mat after the 174-pound final, accept the championship plaque and “sleep with it at night,” he said with a smile.

“It would be a storybook tale,” Panzarella said.

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