March 6, 2011

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a span of three matches Saturday afternoon, UVa’s hopes of repeating as ACC wrestling champion all but vanished at John Paul Jones Arena.

Moments after teammate Chris Henrich destroyed Virginia Tech’s Matt Epperly 13-1 to advance to the 174-pound final and keep the Cavaliers atop the team standings, 184-pounder Jon Fausey stepped on the mat.

Fausey was one of UVa’s three No. 1 seeds in the tournament, along with Henrich and 197-pounder Mike Salopek. But Fausey lost 4-3 to Duke’s Diego Bencomo, the No. 4 seed, on a takedown with two seconds left in the third period.

It got worse for the Wahoos. Salopek fell in the semifinals too, losing 12-4 to fourth-seeded Chris Penny of Virginia Tech, who entered the tournament with a 13-17 record. And then UVa senior Jack Danilkowicz, the No. 3 seed at heavyweight, lost 3-1 to eventual champion Spencer Myers of Maryland on a last-second takedown.

“We were on a run, everything was going great … and it really took the wind out of our sails,” Virginia coach Steve Garland said of that pivotal stretch. “This tournament’s one of those deals where momentum is everything, and you could just feel it, man, you could just feel it on the team. It just really sunk our ship.”

UVa advanced four wrestlers to the championship round, but Maryland and Virginia Tech had six apiece in the finals. The Hokies entered the tournament as no worse than co-favorites, but the Terrapins blew them away.

Maryland had five champions and totaled 94.5 points to win the ACC title for the third time in four years. Tech had three champions, two of whom beat UVa wrestlers in the finals, but finished a distant second with 82.5 points.

Virginia, with 69, was third. The ‘Hoos were second to the Terps in 2008 and ’09.

In 2010, when the Cavaliers won the ACC title, they had two champions (Henrich at 174 and Salopek at 184) and three runners-up. They also had three third-place winners.

Virginia’s haul wasn’t as great Saturday: four runners-up, two third-place winners and four fourth-place finishers.

Henrich, bidding for a third straight ACC crown at 174, lost 4-2 to Maryland’s Mike Letts in the final. Letts, who redshirted last season, is now a three-time ACC champion at that weight class.

“When Chris Henrich gets taken down in the first 10 seconds of the match, you know it’s a long day,” Garland said. “Letts is phenomenally good. However, so is Chris. I think Letts really showed me something today with how he kept his poise. Because Chris kept coming and coming and coming, and [Letts] didn’t let Chris score.”

Five UVa wrestlers earned automatic bids to the NCAA championships: Henrich; Fausey, who took third Saturday; Matt Snyder, runner-up at 125 pounds; Nick Nelson, who placed third at 141; and Derek Valenti, runner-up at 149.

“We’re hopeful that maybe we can turn [the ACC tournament] into a positive and have it push us even harder over these next two weeks,” Henrich said.

Nelson, who missed most of the regular season with an elbow injury, stunned Virginia Tech’s Chris Diaz, the No. 2 seed, in their first-round match Saturday, winning 6-5 in double overtime.

“We fired out of the cannon,” Henrich said. “We started off on a great note, winning some big matches.”

Nine Virginia wrestlers advanced to the semifinals, and Garland’s team led after the first round. In the semifinals, Snyder won at 125, Joe Spisak at 133, Valenti at 149 and then Henrich at 174, and there was every reason to believe Fausey and Salopek — and, perhaps, Danilkowicz too — would join them in the championship round.

“And then it seemed like right after my match in the semifinals, things kind of took a turn for the worse,” Henrich said. “I don’t exactly know why, or can’t really explain at this point. Maybe it’ll be clear after the dust settles. But that certainly seemed to be the turning point.”

The ‘Hoos battled back in the consolation semifinals, advancing six wrestlers to the third-place finals. But only Fausey and Nelson, who beat Diaz again, won those matches. Salopek, who wrestled all season with a shoulder injury that will require surgery, perhaps as early as next week, lost 5-2 to Maryland’s Christian Boley, the No. 3 seed, to finish fourth.

“Think about all those third-place matches,” Garland said. “Last year we won those. This year we lost those.”

In the 125-pound final, Snyder, the No. 2 seed, and Virginia Tech’s Jarrod Garnett were tied 4-4 after the third period. But Garnett, the No. 1 seed, got a takedown 22 seconds into overtime to repeat as ACC champion.

“Here’s what really broke my heart, if I’m being honest,” Garland said. “We get to the finals, and we execute the perfect game plan against the Virginia Tech kid. That kid’s a stud. You have to wrestle him a certain way, and we did that. We made one mistake in overtime and lose in overtime. That breaks your heart. Because I don’t know if [Snyder] could have wrestled any better.”

The 149-pound final matched Valenti against NC State’s Darrion Caldwell, the nation’s top-ranked wrestler in that class. Caldwell, who won the NCAA title at 149 in 2009, edged Valenti 6-3 in a match that was competitive until the end.

“Derek Valenti has a national champion completely frazzled,” Garland said.

UVa wrestles its home dual meets at Memorial Gymnasium. The ACC tourney is not typically held in venues as impressive as JPJ, and Garland called the setting “absolutely phenomenal. This place is ridiculous. And here’s the deal: The most important thing is the student-athletes got a first-class experience. That’s huge. Wrestling never gets that type of treatment, and we got it today, and everybody thought this tournament was great.”

Of the Cavaliers who wrestled Saturday, eight will have eligibility remaining after this season. For Henrich and Danilkowicz, however, the matches were their final ones in Charlottesville.

“I’m sad,” Garland said when asked about his emotions Saturday night. “I’m sad for guys like Jack Danilkowicz and Chris Henrich who won’t ever get a chance to do this again. You don’t realize it when you’re 22 years old. I’m 34 now, I’m still young, and there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not like, ‘Man, it’d be cool to lace ’em up one more time.’ ”

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