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Dec. 19, 2012

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — With final exams under way at the University, the timing wasn’t ideal. But for UVa wrestlers Jon Fausey, Jedd Moore, Mike Salopek and Joe Spisak, their trip to Ohio by van last weekend for the Cleveland State Open proved to be worth the effort involved.

Fausey, Salopek and Spisak each went unbeaten Saturday to win their weight classes, at 174, 197 and 141 pounds, respectively. Moore won seven of eight matches to place third at 157, and he avenged his lone defeat in the tournament with a convincing victory over Kent State standout Ian Miller in the consolation semifinals.

“It really put me in a good place heading into the break,” said Steve Garland, Virginia’s seventh-year coach.

Garland was not in such a good mood driving back from Blacksburg on Nov. 25. Early that afternoon, Virginia Tech had destroyed UVa 25-6 in an ACC dual meet at Cassell Coliseum. The Cavaliers’ only winners that day were freshman George DiCamillo at 133 and Fausey at 174.

“Disappointed is an understatement,” Garland recalled Tuesday. “I was angry, upset, disgusted.

“Long story short, I was really honest with the guys [afterward]. I’m not going to tell you what I said in the locker room, but it wasn’t very nice. It wasn’t complimentary, that’s for sure. Here’s the cool part, though: After that [loss] we had the best three practices in a row that we’ve ever had since I’ve been here, mentally, physically, effort, everything.”

For whatever reason, Garland said, his teams haven’t handled prosperity well. “They have to get kicked in the gut before they actually wake up,” he said, “and I don’t know why that is. This group of guys, the core group, they actually really only wrestle well when they’re the underdogs or when they’ve just come off a terrible performance and they want to prove themselves.”

Nine days before the dual meet at Virginia Tech, UVa had distinguished itself against perennial power Iowa. The Wahoos lost 26-12, but Fausey pinned his opponent at 174, and Salopek and Derek Valenti won by decision at 197 and 149, respectively. Nick Sulzer at 165 and Stephen Doty at 184 dropped close matches.

“Even though we lost to Iowa,” Garland said, “the way we competed, the way we fought was a victory. And I think the guys thought, `If we can hang like that with Iowa, we’re going to beat anybody.’ And then [in Blacksburg] it was like, `No, you gotta bring it the same way. Tech’s really good this year.’

“It’s frustrating. So what we’ve been trying to do, obviously, is challenge them every day and make it a fight. One of the reasons why we brought guys to Cleveland was to see who would push themselves, and Fausey jumped right up. He was like, `I’m ready, man.’ You find out what kids really want to sacrifice when they’re willing to do that in the middle of finals.

“That’s the type of sacrifice he made to go. Same thing with Salopek, same thing with Spisak and Jedd. So I was really thrilled with that.”

Spisak, a redshirt sophomore, began the season as Virginia’s starting 133-pounder but was unable to stay at that weight.

“Physically he couldn’t do it,” Garland said. “I’ll be honest, we had problems with this when he was a freshman, so when he was first struggling with his weight [this fall], the coaching staff kind of rolled our eyes a little bit and said, `Here we go again.’ “

After meeting with nutritionist Randy Bird and seeing the results of body-fat testing on Spisak, however, UVa’s coaches realized Spisak “just wasn’t a ’33-pounder anymore,” Garland said. “He could technically make [weight], but his body was shutting down after he made it. He was cramping up, he was throwing up. It just wasn’t healthy. His body made the decision for us.”

With 141-pounder Matt Nelson sidelined while recovering from a shoulder injury, Spisak became the starter at that weight class in mid-November.

“It took him a little bit to get adjusted to the weight, mentally too,” Garland said. “So that’s why Cleveland State was so big for him, because I think he mentally and physically got adjusted.”

As a freshman in 2010-11, Spisak earned an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament at 133 pounds.

“Everybody knows Joe’s talented,” Garland said, “but mentally he hadn’t had the breakthrough that he had this weekend. He had a mental breakthrough in that when he competed he wrestled like, `I’m not just going to beat you, I’m going to destroy you.’ “

Among Spisak’s six victories at Cleveland State were a fall and two major decisions. He won his final two matches 7-3 and 7-1, respectively.

“He was the big story of the weekend,” Garland.

The feats of Fausey, Salopek and Moore were newsworthy too. Fausey, a redshirt junior, was ACC champion at 184 last season, so he’s a proven talent. But he was coming off a disappointing performance at the elite Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas, where he went 3-2.

At Cleveland State, Fausey went 5-0, with a pin and two major decisions.

“The thing we saw is that as the tournament went on, our guys were feeling more and more confident,” Garland said. “Confidence sounds like a cliché, but it’s so important in our sport and any sport. Joe Spisak, as that tournament went on, realized, `Wait a second, I’m really good. I’m big enough for this weight, I’m bad enough for this weight, and I’m really talented.’

“If you look at the scores, he beat a lot of people pretty badly. And then Fausey, same thing. He needed to get his mojo back and he did. And Salopek just looked really dominant.”

As a redshirt freshman in 2009-10, Salopek won the ACC championship at 184 pounds. Since then, however, he’s been unable to stay healthy for long stretches. Even this season, Salopek missed about a month before returning for the Cleveland State Open, where he won by technical fall (16-0), by major decision (13-0), by medical forfeit and, finally, by decision (7-0).

“He got four matches, he feels great, he’s happy, he’s smiling again,” Garland said. “Whereas before the tournament, when he wasn’t wrestling, he wasn’t a very happy camper. So like I said, there’s that mental side of things, too. It was just a really good day.”

The Cavaliers, who finished second, behind Maryland, at the ACC tournament last season, are No. 21 in the latest InterMat national rankings. (Virgnia Tech is No. 9 and Maryland No. 16.)

When Nelson and heavyweight Derek Papagianopoulos return from injuries, the lineup could change, but heading into the Southern Scuffle, Jan. 1 and 2 in Chattanooga, Tenn., UVa’s probable starters are Matt Snyder at 125, DiCamillo at 133, Spisak at 141, Valenti at 149, Moore at 157, Sulzer at 165, Fausey at 174, Doty at 184, Salopek at 197 and Patrick Gillen at heavyweight.

Several wrestlers are redshirting this season, including Zach Watson, Gus Sako, Vinny Waldhauser, Joseph Martinez and Ethan Hayes.

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