By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Steve Garland was already pleased with the way his wrestlers performed at the NCAA championships in Philadelphia. He felt even better after looking at the sheet of paper his wife, English, handed him last weekend.
“She printed out a list of all the teams that were ranked ahead of us, or that beat us during the year, that we finished ahead of [at the NCAA tournament],” Garland said the other day in his Onesty Hall office.
Virginia tied for 23rd at the NCAAs and, for the first time since 2004, had more than one All-American. Senior Chris Henrich placed sixth at 174 pounds, and junior Derek Valenti took eighth at 149.
“Rutgers, ranked ahead of us all year; we beat ’em at nationals,” Garland said. “Pitt, beat us in a dual meet, ranked ahead of us all year; we beat ’em at nationals. Virginia Tech had a great season; we finished way ahead of ’em [at NCAAs]. They did not have any All-Americans; we had two.
“I’m not trying to knock those programs, but I’m telling you, that’s what our sport is about.”
Virginia won a school-record 19 dual meets during the regular season. Of the seven teams that beat UVa, only Lehigh (8th) and Maryland (16th) finished higher at the NCAA tournament. The other five — Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and Buffalo — finished 28th, 31st, 33rd, 34th and 39th in Philadelphia, respectively.
“It’s something I say every year, and people probably get tired of hearing me say it, but the end of the year, nationals, is all that matters,” said Garland, who was a UVa senior was NCAA runner-up at 125 pounds.
“That’s what’s crazy about our sport. As much as our fans and alumni and everybody at this university loves the ACC competition and Virginia Tech matchups and all that good stuff, at the end of the day, in our sport, All-Americans and national championships, that’s what matters. During the year, it’s only preparation for the end.”
Henrich and Valenti nearly had company from UVa among the sport’s elite. Sophomore Matt Snyder, unseeded at 125 pounds, lost 6-5 to No. 5 seed Zach Sanders of Minnesota in the fourth round of wrestlebacks. A victory in that match would earned Snyder recognition as an All-American, too.
“Matt Snyder had the tournament of his life,” Garland said. “He beat two guys” — Rutgers’ Joe Langel and Cornell’s Frank Perrelli — “who were ranked in the top 12 the entire season. How can you be more proud of that kid?”
Valenti, unseeded, became an All-American with a 9-7 win over Michigan’s Eric Grajales in the fourth round of wrestlebacks.
“It was a bloodbath,” Garland said. “I mean, literally, there was blood all over the mat. Derek’s. It was an absolute war. [Valenti’s victory was] was one of the most special moments I’ve ever had in my 11-year career of coaching. I was crying like a baby afterwards.”
Valenti was “not even ranked in the top 30, and he goes into that tournament and beats all these great guys,” Garland said. “He wins four matches, all heart. Every match came right down to the wire.”
This was the same Derek Valenti whose record near the season’s midpoint was 12-11. He finished 27-15, and his three losses at the NCAAs were to the No. 2, 3 and 5 seeds, none by more than three points.
“Derek doesn’t have a lot of tools physically,” Garland said. “He doesn’t have a lot of offense, he doesn’t have a lot of shots. He just is so mentally tough, and he decided, ‘I’m not going to lose. There’s all there is to it, Coach. I’m coming here and I’m placing.’ And that’s what happened.”
A year ago, Virginia placed 15th at the NCAAs. Henrich was the Cavaliers’ only All-American, but by finishing third at 174 pounds he boosted their team points dramatically.
He will leave the University this spring as the greatest wrestler in the program’s history. Henrich became the first three-time All-American from UVa, and he amassed a school-record 136 victories during his career.
The NCAAs concluded last Saturday night. At the crowded team banquet afterward, Garland said, it “hit us all” that Henrich’s college career was over.
“It was so emotional,” Garland said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And I made it very clear to everybody: I’m not disappointed with Chris’ performance. I’m disappointed that I’m never going to sit in that guy’s corner any more.
“I got a three-time All-American who, every time he goes out there, I get to sit back and watch some special wrestling. It’s sad, man. It’s sad that I’m not going to be able to do that any more. It’s sad that I’m not going to be able to yell and cheer and scream for my guy.”
Seven Cavaliers wrestled at the NCAAs. Only two — 133-pounder Joe Spisak and heavyweight Jack Danilkowicz — did not win at least one match. Both went 0-2 in Philly.
Snyder went 3-2, junior 141-pounder Nick Nelson went 1-2, Valenti and Henrich each went 4-3, and redshirt freshman 184-pounder Jon Fausey went 2-2.
Danilkowicz, a senior, “lost two heartbreakers out there,” Garland said. Spisak is a freshman, and Garland expects him to be better for his struggles in Philadelphia.
“That’s why we always say you have to get out there once,” Garland said. “No [freshman] wrestler has experienced that type of pressure. I don’t care what state they’re from. You got 18,000 people screaming, and it’s all stress. It’s just so stressful, and that type of pressure, you have to go through it once just to experience it.
“You’ve got John Smith and Dan Gable and Tom Brands, all these icons of the sport walking around you. Really, you almost have to get used to that your first year out there. Because in our world, those guys are big deals, Cael Sanderson, Rob Koll. You have to kind of get used to that so it’s not impressive. The next time you go, you go there to win. You’re not going there for the experience.”
UVa loses only two seniors: Henrich and Danilkowicz. Garland will have back eight wrestlers who have qualified for the NCAAs during their careers: Snyder, Spisak, Nelson, Valenti, Fausey, Shawn Harris, Jedd Moore and Mike Salopek.
“The future’s bright,” Garland said. “I walked out of that tournament with a lot of respect for my guys, with a very optimistic view.
“I was so happy with the way my guys wrestled, and as a coach, it’s about a lot more than just the Ws. You gotta see how these guys are developing, you gotta see what kind of effort they’re putting forth. I saw other guys at that tournament that wanted to check out, that didn’t want to be there, and I saw my guys fighting for every point.”
Salopek, who in 2010 won the ACC title at 184 pounds, wrestled for most of the past two seasons with a severe shoulder injury. He had surgery a few days after UVa placed third, behind champion Maryland and runner-up Virginia Tech, at the ACC tournament. Had Salopek, who wrestled at 197 this season, been healthy enough to compete, he might have received an at-large berth in the NCAAs.
Several members of a well-regarded recruiting class are likely to contend for spots in UVa’s 2011-12 lineup. So will Stephen Doty, a versatile sophomore, and Nick Sulzer, a freshman who redshirted.
Doty, who wrestled at 174, 184 and 197, compiled a 25-9 record. Sulzer, competing unattached at 165 pounds, went 24-5 and won four tournaments.
“He’s very, very good,” Garland said of Sulzer. “He would have definitely gotten to nationals this year as a freshman. I don’t care who’s in his weight, they’re going to have to watch out for that kid. It doesn’t matter what weight he goes — ’74, ’65, ’84 — he’s just that good.”
Rather than go home for spring break, Garland said, UVa wrestlers who did not qualify for the NCAAs stayed in town to support those who would be competing in Philadelphia.
“They all trained with their teammates, they all sacrificed, they paid for their own way up to nationals, bought their tickets,” Garland said. “You know how much that costs a kid that age? That’s like a $300, $400 trip.”
The Cavaliers won’t soon forget their experience at the NCAAs. After he earned All-American status, Valenti said last weekend, “I had a bunch of our first-years run up to me and say, ‘I saw you do it, and watching you do it just makes me want it that much more.’
“It’s something that everyone around us can feed off of in working for that goal. It’s something Chris set up, and it’s almost like a passing of the guard, where Chris is leaving and I try to step in to fill his shoes. Chris has the toughest shoes to fill of anyone on the team, but I think we’re going to have some guys step up over the next couple of years, and we can get two, three, four, five All-Americans in one year. I don’t see why we can’t.”