By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On paper, the team to beat Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena is Virginia Tech, not the University of Virginia. That’s fine with Steve Garland.
“We wrestle way better as a team when we’re the underdogs,” said a smiling Garland, UVa’s fifth-year coach.
The six-team ACC tournament is Saturday at JPJ, and the champion figures to come from this group: Virginia Tech, UVa and Maryland.
“I think we’re in a great position,” said Virginia senior Chris Henrich, the two-time defending ACC champion at 174 pounds. “We’re in pretty much the same position as we were last year. Slight underdog, but certainly peaking at the right time.”
UVa, a close second to Maryland in 2008 and again in ’09, broke through last year in Raleigh, N.C., rallying to win its first ACC title since 1977. The Terrapins placed second and the Hokies third.
Had the Wahoos been able to stay healthy, they might be heading into this weekend as favorites. But for much of the regular season, Garland was without three of his top wrestlers: junior 141-pounder Nick Nelson, sophomore 165-pounder Jedd Moore and sophomore 197-pounder Mike Salopek.
All are healthy now.
“One of my assistant coaches said to me in a meeting, ‘Do you realize, Steve, that this is going to be the first time all year that we’ve entered our full lineup?’ ” Garland said in his Onesty Hall office.
“The first time! It’s ACCs! We won [a school-record] 19 dual meets without having our full lineup in. I think that’s pretty amazing. I’m not guaranteeing anything, but it’s kind of hard not to get pumped up when you finally have the starting lineup that was projected at the beginning of the year back in.”
Nelson, who won all six of his matches in November, didn’t compete in December or in January or for most of February. He returned for Virginia’s final dual meet, a Feb. 20 rout of Old Dominion, and won convincingly to raise his record to 7-0.
The dual meet at ODU was the only one this season in which both Nelson and Moore were in UVa’s lineup. A foot injury kept Moore out of competition until Jan. 16. He enters the ACC tourney with a 6-4 record.
Salopek (10-4) has battled a variety of injuries and, as a precaution, sat out UVa’s final three dual meets. He’s as healthy now, though, as he has been all season.
A year ago, Virginia was the only team to have a semifinalist in each of the 10 weight classes at the ACC tournament. Of those 10, only Salopek (at 197) and Henrich ultimately won championships, but three other Cavaliers were runners-up. Three others placed third, including Jack Danilkowicz at heavyweight and Derek Valenti at 141.
“It’s just going to take an all-out team effort [to repeat],” Henrich said. “We certainly learned that last year, that winning ACCs is 100 percent a team effort.”
At the ACC tournament, wrestlers who lose before the championship matches can still help their teams by scoring points in the consolation rounds. Strong efforts in the wrestlebacks, as much as the titles won by Henrich and Salopek, put the ‘Hoos over the top last year.
“This team has this unity and this family culture to it that makes it possible,” Henrich said. “I can’t speak for other teams to know, if their guys lose, that they’re 100-percent committed to battling back, just for the sake of the team.
“How tough are they going to be? How much do they care about their brethren on their team? Are they going to go out with 100 percent, or are they going to go out and just flake, because it doesn’t mean anything to them? I think we have a team that has certainly shown in the past, and it’s truer now than ever, that when you look at every guy on our team, you’re going to find a guy that’s going to give 100 percent till the end.”
First-round matches will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday. The semifinals are scheduled for 1 p.m., with the consolation semifinals to start at 3:30. The consolation finals are set for 5 p.m., followed by the championship matches at 7 o’clock.
Henrich, who placed third at last year’s NCAA championships, hopes to see the stands at JPJ filled with UVa fans Saturday.
“It’s not something that I’ll typically go out and say, because I understand that sometimes Friday matches are hard to get to, and wrestling matches, they’re not flashed everywhere, they’re not in the news typically,” Henrich said.
“But this is something where I’ll go on record saying I’d like to see a lot of people here, and I’d be a little disappointed if people didn’t show up to support this program right now. I’m fully expecting people to come, and I think we’re going to have a great showing.
“It’s a fun event. It’s fun to be a part of, and the more people that come, the more exciting it gets, the more we’ll be able to feed off it.”
UVa will have the highest-seeded wrestler in three weight classes: Henrich at 174, redshirt freshman Jon Fausey at 184 and Salopek at 197.
Other contenders from Virginia include Nelson, Moore, sophomore Matt Snyder at 125, Valenti, a junior, at 149, and Danilkowicz, a senior, at heavyweight. Snyder was ACC runner-up at 133 last year.
Garland, a 2000 graduate of UVa, won the ACC’s 125-pound title in 1997. On the eve of last year’s ACC tourney, Garland addressed his wrestlers, he recalled recently, and told them, “Look, I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, guys. What I do know is that I’ve never felt more comfortable in believing in who we’re putting out on the mat, the product we’re putting out there, the type of kid we’re putting out there.'”
This year, Garland said, “not only do I have that same feeling of belief in my athletes, I also think we’re darn good. I also think we don’t have holes, and I believe in every one of those guys competition-wise … I’m thinking we can do some real damage.”
Henrich said: “I know that we’re going to go out guns blazing, as we do every year in ACCs, and there’s no reason why we can’t repeat as champs, especially having as added motivation that we’re having it at JPJ.”