By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“Was he smiling?” Garland asked Sunday afternoon.
Garland worries a lot about Salopek, a graduate student who’s in his fifth year in the Cavaliers’ program. As a redshirt freshman in 2009-10, Salopek won the ACC title at 184 pounds, but since then he’s been slowed, and occasionally stopped, by a series of injuries to various parts of his body.
In 2010-11, a serious shoulder injury limited Salopek to 17 matches and effectively kept him out of the NCAA championships. He wrestled in only eight matches as a redshirt junior before UVa’s medical staff shut him down, forcing him to miss the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
“I had some high expectations coming into my sophomore season, and then I dealt with my shoulder problems all that year,” he said. “I come back from my shoulder, and then I get my knee, and then it’s one thing after another.”
He’s been healthier this season, though still not injury-free. Salopek missed UVa’s dual meet with Virginia Tech in late November and was able to wrestle only once between Nov. 17 and Dec. 31 — at the Cleveland State Open, where he went 4-0 to win the 197-pound title Dec. 15.
In his next tournament, the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tenn., Salopek lasted only one match. He tore ligaments in his foot Jan. 1 in the final minute of a 9-3 win over Oklahoma State’s Austin Schafer, and “I had to sit out a few weeks,” Salopek said Sunday. “I have a special insert in my shoe that helps out a lot with it.”
Salopek, who’s from North Huntingdon, Pa. near Pittsburgh, was cleared to compete against ACC rival NC State on Sunday afternoon at Mem Gym. Still, as the dual meet approached, Garland’s anxiety level rose.
“I’ve been praying nonstop about Mike,” Garland said, “because I’ve been there with him through not just this injury, but he’s been injured a ton, and I’m talking serious ones. I’m the filter on injuries, so I’m the first guy that looks him in the face, and he looks to me for help and says, `Coach, what do I do? I need you to have an answer.’
“I’m not trying to play the violin, but I don’t care what anyone says, that’s a tough spot to be in. And so all week I’ve just been praying for him to be healthy, period. Just please don’t get hurt, and praise God it didn’t happen.”
With an overflow crowd cheering him on, Salopek smashed State’s William Cook. The 6-foot-3 Salopek built a 17-2 lead to win by technical fall in the third period, contributing five team points to the Wahoos’ 32-7 rout of the Wolfpack. Twice Cook was penalized a point for unsportsmanlike conduct, which served only to stoke Salopek and the fans at Mem Gym.
“He was kind of slapping me, hitting me in the face, getting his thumb in my eye and things like that that are obviously against the rules,” Salopek said. “The ref kind of stopped him once and warned him and he just kept doing it.”
The victory improved Salopek’s record this season to 11-1. His lone loss came Nov. 3, in overtime. He knows his college career will last at most two more months, and that’s added to Salopek’s sense of urgency this winter.
“It’s really motivating, actually,” he said. “I’ve had some high expectations since my freshman year, and I haven’t been able to get to those expectations, so you’ve kind of got to jam everything into the last few months of the season and just try to reach those goals I’ve set for myself.”
Salopek, who earned his bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences last year, is an honor-roll student who’s now pursuing a master’s in that discipline. Outside the classroom, however, he’s faced more than his share of adversity.
“I had some high expectations coming into my sophomore season, and then I dealt with my shoulder problems all that year,” he said. “Come back from my shoulder, and then I get my knee, and then it’s one thing after another.”
Garland said: “That’s what’s so crazy about our sport. If you look at every team in the country, every team’s got a story like that, where somebody came out [strong as a freshman] and you’re like, `This dude is going to be the bomb.’
“In our world, it’s just like football, the injuries are so frequent, and the probability is not if it’s gonna happen, it’s actually when and how severe. Now, Mike’s case has been a little extreme, though. The shoulder, the knee, the staph infection, the foot, the ankle, the torn pec muscle. He’s been through heck.”
Salopek hopes to finish his college career on a high note. Next up for No. 11 Virginia (12-3 overall, 3-1 ACC) is a dual meet with Maryland (10-6, 1-1) in College Park on Friday night.
The `Hoos close the regular season against Appalachian State (Feb. 9 at 1 p.m.) and Old Dominion (Feb. 10 at 1 p.m.), both at Mem Gym. If the atmosphere for those dual meets is anything like it was Sunday for NC State’s visit, the Cavaliers will enjoy a significant home-mat advantage.
“That’s the first time I can remember people walking in, not having a seat and leaving,” said Garland, a former UVa wrestler who’s in his seventh season as head coach at his alma mater. “That’s a good problem to have. Now we gotta get more seating.”
Salopek said: “It’s just a cool atmosphere when a lot of people come. It gets pretty loud in here.”
The fans grew loudest when redshirt sophomore Joe Spisak pinned NC State’s Tyler Hunt in the 141-pound match, but there were plenty of cheers for the Cavaliers’ other winners, too, Salopek included.
“It’s just so nice to see him smiling,” Garland said. “This is a kid I hope to be friends with the rest of his life. I just want to see the kid enjoy himself.”
Salopek clearly was enjoying himself Sunday. In March 2010, his 2-0 victory over Virginia Tech’s Tommy Spellman in the 184-pound final had clinched UVa’s first ACC wrestling championship in 33 years. Similar feats — for Salopek and the `Hoos — remain possibilities in his final college season.
“It’s good to be finally healthy this year and focused on competing and getting better,” he said.
His interview finished, Salopek shook hands and walked away. He was smiling.