By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As a ninth-grader at St. Edward High School in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, Ohio, Gus Sako ate and ate and ate, and he still couldn’t break 100 pounds.
The University of Virginia’s wrestling coach, Steve Garland, recruited Sako to compete in the 125-pound class. Before he’s through at UVa, Sako may well be a 157-pounder. On the team roster, his height is listed as 5-7. He’s now around 5-9.
“That’s the joke on the team,” Sako, a sophomore, said this week. “They don’t know when I’m going to stop growing.”
After competing at 133 and then 141 pounds as a freshman, Sako is at 149 this season, and he’s carrying the weight well. The 58th annual ACC championships are Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Sako is one of four Cavaliers who enter the tournament seeded No. 1.
The others are redshirt junior Matt Snyder at 125, redshirt senior Nick Nelson at 141, and redshirt sophomore Jon Fausey at 184.
Seeded No. 2 for UVa are senior Matt Nelson at 133 and redshirt junior Jedd Moore at 157.
Defending champion Maryland, UVa and Virginia Tech figure to battle it out for the ACC title. Like Virginia, Maryland has four No. 1 seeds.
“It’s going to be one of those deals where it’s a close, close race,” Garland said. “It could come down to one individual bout.”
The Wahoos, who went 11-1 in dual meets during the regular season, haven’t competed since Feb. 19, when they whipped state rivals Old Dominion (31-3) and George Mason (29-7) at Memorial Gymnasium. Their focus since then has been on preparing for the ACC tourney.
“It was a great ride, it was fun, it was on paper the best regular season we’ve ever had,” Garland said, “but none of it really matters now, because ACCs is a totally different monster.”
First-round matches at the University of North Carolina’s Carmichael Arena will begin at 11 a.m.. The semifinals will start at 1 p.m., followed the semifinal consolation matches at 3:30.
Then come the consolation finals (5 p.m.) and, last, the championship matches, starting at 7 p.m.
ESPN3 will carry all the rounds. Fans can also follow the results Saturday here.
A year ago, the ACC tournament was held at John Paul Jones Arena, and UVa entered as the defending champion. The ‘Hoos had three No. 1 seeds — Chris Henrich at 174, Fausey at 184, and Mike Salopek at 197 — but none won an ACC title. When the tournament ended, the Cavaliers had four runners-up, two third-place winners and four fourth-place finishers, a showing that left Virginia third in the team standings, with 69 points, behind Maryland (94.5) and Virginia Tech (82.5).
For UVa’s No. 1 seeds to to fall short, Garland said recently, was “just so psychologically and emotionally defeating, regardless of points. We need champs. We need our guys to do what they’re supposed to do. That’s it. That might mean a guy who’s seeded third takes third.
“I hate to put more pressure on them, but in order for us to win this tournament, the guys that are No. 1 have to win.”
Sako, ranked No. 20 nationally at 149 by InterMat, doesn’t mind the pressure. “I’m expecting to go out there and perform to my complete ability,” he said. “I believe, with the work that we’ve been putting in, if I just go out there and do as I’ve been trained and told to do, just one match at a time, the end result will be what we want.”
He’s used to winning. At St. Edward, a school with a storied tradition in wrestling, Sako went 148-13. He won two state titles: at 103 pounds as a sophomore and at 125 as a senior. He was state runner-up at 112 as a junior.
His classmates at St. Edward included Nick Sulzer, now UVa’s starting 165-pounder. (Sulzer is a No. 3 seed in the ACC tourney.)
Sako, whose father, Guy, wrestled at Cleveland State, also visited Cornell, Minnesota and the University of Pennsylvania when he was considering colleges. But he was taken by Garland’s enthusiasm and liked UVa. So did Sulzer, and “we were kind of like, ‘Hey, why don’t we do this together?’ ” Sako recalled.
Sulzer redshirted last season. Sako went 24-19, a solid but not especially impressive record. A year later, he’s 18-5. Why the dramatic improvement?
“It was a combination of just doing the right things that Coach Garland’s been telling me to do,” Sako said, “and it was kind of an eye-opener for me last year, coming out of high school. I had a lot of success in high school, and then coming here and wrestling some absolute studs, it was kind of frustrating at first.”
He experienced more frustration in October. During the first week of practice, Sako suffered a clavicle injury that sidelined him for more than a month. He didn’t make his 2011-12 debut until mid-December, when he went 6-2 at the Cleveland State Open. He followed that with a strong performance at the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“At Cleveland State, I think he got a taste for how good he could be,” Garland said. “The Scuffle is when all the confidence and everything clicked. He’s just like, ‘Forget it, I can beat anybody. I’m going out there to beat everybody.’ ”
On Feb. 5, Sako upset Rutgers’ Mario Mason, then ranked No. 5 nationally, and now “I don’t know if anybody in the [Cavaliers’ wrestling] room can even take him down,” Garland said. “It’s crazy. I’m serious.
“If he’d been in that lineup this whole year? Are you kidding me? He’d be like 35-7, probably. It’d be pretty ridiculous.”
Another St. Edward graduate, redshirt senior Shawn Harris, began the season as Virginia’s top 149-pounder, only to lose the job when Sako got healthy.
“It was hard for me,” Sako said. “I love Shawn to death. He’s been a good friend of mine for as long as I can remember. But one thing I love about this sport are the characters that are in the spot. Shawn and I are still great friends. We live together [in a house off Grounds]. I’m with him almost 12 hours a day.
“Outside the room, nothing changes. We’re still good friends. It doesn’t affect anything there. That just shows the character Shawn has, and it’s an awesome feeling to be friends with a guy like that.”
Sako is relentless on the mat, an attribute Garland would like to see in all of UVa’s wrestlers. Of Sako’s 18 victories, seven have been by fall and three by major decision.
Garland’s philosophy, Sako said, is the “same thing my dad’s been telling me since I was a little kid. My dad’s analogy is, ‘Score like a Gatling gun.’ I’ve probably heard him say that thousands of times. My dad was my coach for eight years or so, and then I get to high school, and sure enough my coach in high school says the exact same thing: ‘You gotta [pile] up points. Score points. Don’t worry about winning or losing. Just score.’ And so I’m just kind of keeping the mentality that’s been ingrained in my head for as long as I can remember.”
At last year’s ACC tourney, Nick Nelson was UVa’s representative at 141. Sako sat in the stands at JPJ and cheered on his teammates.
To have the opportunity now to compete for an ACC title is “kind of a dream come true,” Sako said. “This is what I’ve been working for. It was awesome getting to see my buddies, my teammates, compete last year, but it didn’t feel right sitting in the stands. I didn’t like it. This whole year has just been about focusing on doing everything right and putting myself in the position that I’m in now.”