Jan. 7, 2014

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Before he became head wrestling coach at his alma mater, the University of Virginia, Steve Garland was an assistant at Cornell. His recruiting targets for the Big Red included brothers Keith and Aaron Sulzer, and their home in Cleveland became one of his favorite stops.

“The family and I hit it off big-time,” Garland recalled recently.

The boys’ father, Keith Sulzer, a police commander in Cleveland’s Second District, is a serious weightlifter. Garland marveled at the Strongman competitions the Sulzers held in the backyard with various devices, including one known as Conan’s wheel.

“Their whole family lifts,” Garland said, “and so I remember thinking: what an amazing thing. Not only is the family close, and they’re great, that’s how serious they take training: They have a freaking giant machine in their backyard.”

To Garland’s disappointment, Keith ended up at Northwestern and Aaron at Eastern Michigan. But the brothers’ parents had not forgotten him.

“I remember Mr. Sulzer calling me when Aaron committed and saying, `Don’t worry, we still love you, but this is the right fit for my son,’ ” Garland said. “He was great. There was no bad blood.”

There was, however, another Sulzer brother. He was in middle school when Garland began visiting the family’s home in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood, and “I was just flying off the walls,” Nick Sulzer recalled.

Sounds a lot like Garland. No wonder they formed an immediate bond.

“I remember him coming up the basement steps, and I joked about how he was going to wrestle for me some day,” Garland said.

By the time Sulzer became a star at St. Edward High, which has one of the nation’s premier wrestling programs, Garland had returned to the University as head coach. Sulzer, who went 40-0 as a high school senior, was the Wahoos’ top recruiting priority in the Class of 2010, and he ultimately chose UVa over Northwestern and Eastern Michigan, in part because of his longstanding relationship with Garland.

The Cavaliers continue to reap the benefits of Sulzer’s decision.

As a redshirt freshman in 2011-12, he placed third in the ACC tournament at 165 pounds and finished the season with a 27-9 record after splitting his four matches at the NCAA championships.

As a redshirt sophomore, he was ACC runner-up at 165 pounds and went 3-3 at the NCAA tournament, where his eighth-place finish made him the 15th All-American in the history of UVa’s program. Sulzer’s feat also gave St. Edward a Division I All-American for the 23rd consecutive year.

This season, he’s ranked No. 3 nationally at 165 pounds. After taking third place last week at the prestigious Southern Scuffle tournament in Chattanooga, Tenn., Sulzer’s record is 19-1.

He went 6-1 at the Scuffle, losing only to second-ranked Tyler Caldwell of Oklahoma State, who edged Sulzer 2-1 in the quarterfinals. In the third-place match, Sulzer overwhelmed ninth-ranked Zach Toal of Missouri, winning 12-2.

“Nick’s incredibly gifted,” Garland said. “He knows it. Everyone in the world knows it. But here’s the deal: One of the pillars to my program, when I talk about the Virginia Way, is being a good steward of the talents and gifts you’ve been given. So that means maxing out on what you naturally have been gifted with.

“I’ve recruited plenty of gifted kids over the years. I’ve had plenty of gifted dudes not achieve anything, because they didn’t max out. Nick’s maxing out on the gifts and talents he’s been given. The difference between him and most people is he’s actually making it a point to do the best he can with what he’s been given. And that means wrestling at the level he’s at right now. That’s the level he should be at.”

In each of the past two offseasons, Garland said, Sulzer has stayed in Charlottesville to train with him, focusing on improving in specific wrestling positions.

“He had major areas he needed to work on, and he fixed them,” Garland said, “and now he’s exponentially better in those areas.”

With fewer weaknesses, Sulzer said, “I’m able to wrestle with a carefree attitude. When you don’t really have all the skills, you have to adjust matches to what you’re good at, and I think this year I’m improved in so many areas that I can kind of just afford to take higher risks.”

Another factor, Garland believes, is Sulzer’s breakthrough at last year’s NCAA tournament.

“Last year we had a pretty big meeting where he came in and said, `Coach, I’m so sick of everybody telling me how good I am. I don’t need to hear that anymore,’ ” Garland recalled.

“He had a giant cinder block on his back, and when he [became an All-American], it was just stripped away, and all of the sudden he could breathe again. He smiled for the first time in months. His shoulders came back. He kind of started walking upright again instead of slouched over. It was like, `OK, I can be normal again, because this thing is done with.’

“One of the reasons why I think he’s been wrestling so free and so open with his style is because he’s not worried about that. He’s trying to just do the best he can. That sounds so clichéd, but when you’re out there and all you’re thinking about is scoring points, it’s amazing how you wrestle. But when you’re worried about protecting something, you’re worried about losing, you’re worried about winning, you worry, worry, worry, and it paralyzes you, and we’ve seen that with some of our other athletes. They’re great in the [wrestling] room, but then they go out on the mat and they can’t even think straight, because they’re so consumed by, `What if I lose?’ ”

Garland can empathize. As a UVa senior in 2000, he was NCAA runner-up at 125 pounds.

In the championship match, Garland said, “I was so worried about the what ifs that I didn’t wrestle. It was the one match of the tournament I didn’t wrestle. It wasn’t about winning or losing that I regret, it’s about the fact that I didn’t compete. I was so overwhelmed by the moment that I didn’t open up and actually wrestle to the ability I’d been gifted with, and that haunts me. I think Nick doesn’t want to feel like that ever again, so now he’s just like, `I’m not worried about that. I’ve got that out of the way, and here’s where I’m going.’ ”

Sulzer said: “I think a lot of it’s just perspective. I used to think of wrestling kind of as life and death. I put so much pressure on myself. Now I realize that I’m not going to be able to do this forever. I only have a year and a half left to really enjoy this sport. And then there’s the influence of my family and my coaches. My support system I have is better than it’s ever been. If I lose a match, it’s not the end of the world. I still have people that love me, so it’s like, why not be able to wrestle free and take risks?”

Garland likes all of his wrestlers, but it’s no secret that he and Sulzer are exceptionally close.

“We joke a lot with my staff that Nick’s my boy,” Garland said. “I just really click with him really well, because we’re both neurotic, we’re both really structured. We’re wired very much the same. We’re both worrywarts. We both struggle with anxiety, but we also are both perfectionists. We’re also really driven dudes who really enjoy work. We embrace it. That’s sort of where our home base is, when we’re in the grind. And so that’s why we connect so deeply, I think.”

Assistant coach Alex Clemsen “calls me `Little Steve,’ because of how similar we are,” Sulzer said, smiling. “When things start to buckle down, we’re just really focused and almost obsessive about getting things done. We’re very particular about all the details.”

A psychology major, Sulzer followed two other St. Edward graduates, Shawn Harris and Danny Gonsor, to UVa. The Cavaliers’ current roster includes three former Eagles: Sulzer, redshirt junior Gus Sako and redshirt freshman James Suvak.

Sulzer and Sako are roommates at UVa, and they’ve known each other since they were in elementary school. “His house is one street away from mine,” said Sulzer, and Sako’s father, like Sulzer’s, is a Cleveland policeman.

Sako, ranked 10th nationally at 149 pounds, pinned three opponents at the Southern Scuffle, where he placed fourth. The 13th-ranked `Hoos finished sixth at the tournament and will be seeded first this weekend at the Virginia Duals, Friday and Saturday at the Hampton Coliseum.

A season ago, the NCAA championships were held in Des Moines, Iowa. The tournament moves this year to Oklahoma City, where Sulzer may well contend for a national title.

To watch Sulzer grow into such a formidable wrestler has been rewarding for his coach.

“You see so many kids across the country who were all-world in high school and don’t make it, and everybody’s trying to figure out why,” Garland said.

“So when you see a guy that does have the ability and does have a skill set that you think is special, to see him max out, to see him continually improve, to see him commit his life to his Virginia Way lifestyle, where he says, `Everything I do, I’m going to do it the best I can,’ that’s unbelievably gratifying, and you’re just so proud of him.”

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