By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The nation’s 22nd-ranked college wrestling team was none too hospitable to its weekend guests at Memorial Gymnasium.
Eighteen hours after demolishing Duke 39-3 in an ACC dual meet Friday night, UVa dismantled North Carolina 24-10.
Neither Duke nor UNC is a national power, and a tougher test awaits Virginia on Sunday, when No. 13 Maryland, the defending ACC champion, visits Mem Gym. Still, the weekend’s results left coach Steve Garland and his wrestlers pleased with the Cavaliers’ progress as the ACC and NCAA tournaments draw nearer.
Heading into their dual meet with the Terrapins, the Wahoos are 3-1 in the ACC and 6-1 overall. Their loss was to Virginia Tech at John Paul Jones Arena. The Hokies prevailed 18-13 on Nov. 27 in a clash that came down to the heavyweight match.
“Our attitude, our effort, is phenomenal right now,” said fifth-year senior Nick Nelson, one of the nation’s top 141-pounders.
“This team is so great at learning from our mistakes. Coach will teach something, and you’ll go see it that day in practice, or you’ll go see it that weekend. That’s one of the things that in years past we haven’t always been the best at. But this year, the group of guys we have really is learning, really listening and really focusing on doing everything in life right.”
After the win over UNC, Garland gathered his wrestlers around him.
“I told them, ‘Don’t get me wrong, we’ve got technical things [to clean up]. We didn’t wrestle our best today. But guys, if you can rack up that many points in a dual meet, rack up that many individual bonus-point wins, if we can do that and still not be at our best, we’re in good shape. We’ve got to just tighten up the little things, but if we keep that same focus on scoring from every position, man, we’re going to be tough to beat.’ “
Virginia’s starting lineup is not the one Garland expected to field this season. Derek Valenti, an All-American last year at 149 pounds, is redshirting, and injuries are likely to sideline 197-pounder Mike Salopek, the ACC champion at 184 in 2010, for the rest of the season. But Nick’s twin brother, 133-pounder Matt Nelson (14-3), 149-pounder Gus Sako (13-5), 165-pounder Nick Sulzer (19-4) and heavyweight Derek Papagianopoulos (7-1), among others, have emerged as talented complements to such veterans as 125-pounder Matt Snyder (17-3), Nick Nelson (18-2), 157-pounder Jedd Moore (15-5) and 184-pound Jon Fausey (16-3).
In the latest InterMat rankings, Snyder is No. 11, Nick Nelson is No. 10, Sulzer is No. 15, and Fausey is No. 14 in their respective weight classes. Papagianopoulos might well be ranked, too, had he not missed two months with a knee injury.
A redshirt freshman from Burlington, Mass., Papagianopoulous returned to competition Friday night and crushed Duke’s Andrew Fulk 13-4. He won by major decision again Saturday afternoon, whipping UNC’s Frank Abbondanza 12-2.
Papagianoloupos, who’s generously listed at 5-11, is fast becoming a crowd favorite with an explosive style rarely seen in his weight class.
“Most heavyweights don’t do a whole lot,” Garland said. “Derek’s not one of those guys. He was an all-state linebacker in high school. Praise God he’s not taller, or else he wouldn’t be wrestling. He’d be playing football.”
Papagianopoulos’ loss came by injury default Nov. 13 at the NC Open.
“Imagine if he’d been healthy all year,” Garland said. “He hasn’t wrestled in two months, and he goes out and he’s bonus-pointing guys, exploding through shots, getting the crowd on their feet. And he’s only a redshirt freshman, by the way. He’s going to be around a long time and make some people really happy.”
This is Garland’s sixth season as head coach at his alma mater, where he was NCAA runner-up at 125 pounds as a senior in 2000. His coaching philosophy continues to evolve, and this season he’s been emphasizing to his wrestlers the importance of staying aggressive on the mat.
“We’re never stopping,” Snyder said Saturday. “You see we’re not getting leads and just holding on to them. I was down 4-0 at the start of the first period, and it didn’t matter. I just kept scoring, kept scoring, kept scoring.”
Snyder ended up beating UNC’s Brian Bokoski by major decision, 18-4, much to Garland’s delight.
“Hopefully I’m getting better at my job each year — maybe just a little bit better — but I think in the past we’ve had a habit, some guys, of just winning,” Garland said, “either just winning close or not closing out frames.”
That’s no longer acceptable.
“No matter what happens, if you focus on scoring from every position, and that’s all you’re thinking about,” Garland said, “then you’re not worried about winning and losing, you’re not going out to not lose. You’re going out and just scoring points, and before you know it that ‘W’ is up on the board. So that’s been something that’s really clicked with us, especially in the last month.”
Fausey calls it “beating the clock,” Snyder said. “Not trying to beat your opponent, but trying to score as many points as you can in that seven minutes.”
Nelson said: “That’s kind of one of our mantras: wrestling a full seven as hard as we can go. One life lesson that I got from reading [former UCLA basketball coach] John Wooden’s book … is that you can’t control whether you go out and compete your best. All you can do is compete your hardest.
“You have good days, you have bad days, but you can always control your effort, and that’s one thing that this team has been phenomenal at all year — going out and wrestling a full seven and wrestling as hard as we can. I think we did that here [against UNC]. We made mistakes, but we’ll learn from them.”
A nagging injury has slowed Nelson recently, and he sat out the dual meet against Duke. He returned Saturday to take on 18th-ranked Evan Henderson of UNC. After his brother beat Brock LiVorio 6-2, Nick Nelson dispatched Henderson 7-4.
“I don’t ever try to get outside myself,” Nick said, “but it definitely pumps me up [to face a ranked opponent]. It definitely motivates me. I’m not one of those guys that are going to lie to you and say it’s just another match. I definitely add a little bit more pressure to myself, because I expect to win those big matches, and I really push myself in those matches, because that’s how you’re going to make the most gains.”