March 5, 2014

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — If you think Justin Anderson is perpetually upbeat, you should meet his friend Joe Spisak.

“He kind of reminds me of myself,” Anderson said recently at John Paul Jones Arena, “but he’s a little crazier.”

A 2010 article about Spisak in a Pennsylvania newspaper, The Patriot-News, described him as irrepressible, and that adjective works as well as any. His concentration may lapse occasionally — a problem his wrestling coach at UVa, Steve Garland, would like to correct — but nobody questions Spisak’s passion for life, or his never-ending quest to keep his, and his teammates’, spirits high.

Spisak, a redshirt junior from Boiling Springs, Pa., near Harrisburg, is the Cavaliers’ starting 141-pounder, and he’s ranked No. 16 nationally by InterMat. He’ll compete Saturday in the ACC tournament at Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum, in a weight class that includes 10th-ranked Evan Henderson of North Carolina and 15th-ranked Edgar Bright of Pittsburgh.

“Wrestling’s just such a physical sport, and it’s so physically and mentally demanding on your body and your mind,” Spisak said. “I have to try to have fun, because with how much weight we lose and how many practices we do, if you don’t approach it with an upbeat manner, it takes its toll on you mentally. It’ll bring you down.”

Off the mat, Spisak amuses himself in various ways. He and several teammates have an ongoing competition to see who can have the best tan, even in winter. When his mother, back home in Boiling Springs, watched the video feed of one of his matches in early January, she heard the announcer attribute her son’s success to his status as “the most fake-tanned guy at this tournament,” Spisak recalled.

“My mom just started laughing so hard. She was like, `You need to tone it down in the tanning beds, Joseph.’ ”

His personality, Spisak said, comes from his mother, Kim, who coaches field hockey at Boiling Springs High School, home of the Bubblers.

Bubblers? “We have a natural spring in the center of our town that filled up this lake,” Spisak said, “and basically it’s never going to stop running, so that’s where we got our name. I’ve gotten so much grief about it here.”

Spisak’s siblings — sisters Anna, Mary Kate and Emma — are all accomplished field hockey players. His father, Steve, is a former college wrestler who later coached at Boiling Springs High and still battles his son on the mat.

“My dad’s pretty low-key, a pretty serious guy,” Spisak said. “But my mom, she’s Mrs. Social Butterfly. She loves to talk to everybody. Everybody calls her the Mayor of Boiling Springs, just because she just knows everybody.”

Sounds like a certain student-athlete at UVa, one whose friends call him Speezy.

“He’s just a real open guy,” said Anderson, a high-flying sophomore for the fifth-ranked Virginia men’s basketball team.

Spisak said: “I’m really close with a lot of guys on the football team. “I’m really close with Justin Anderson. I’m good friends with Bryan Lima, Eric Bird and a lot of the soccer guys. I’m friends with a lot of the girls on the girls’ teams.

“I love everybody here. You can’t go wrong. Every sports team is nice here, and it’s crazy, because I always think how unbelievable it is that these are the best teams in the country and how humble they are.”

In wrestling, UVa won 18 of 21 dual meets during the regular season. The Cavaliers also competed in two elite tournaments: the Las Vegas Cliff Keen Invitational and the Southern Scuffle. Spisak faced a grueling schedule that included matches against Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 12, 14 and 15 in the latest InterMat rankings, plus two against Virginia Tech’s Devin Carter, who was an NCAA title contender before suffering a season-ending injury.

“It’s been insane,” Garland. “He’s had arguably the toughest schedule of anyone on our team.”

Spisak, who has twice advanced to the NCAA championships, is 18-10 this season, with victories over Henderson, No. 5 Chris Dardanes (Minnesota), No. 12 Ugi Khishignyam (The Citadel) and No. 14 Collin Johnston (West Virginia), among others. At the Southern Scuffle in early January, Spisak took second-ranked Zain Retherford (Penn State) to overtime before losing 6-4.

“He’s arguably had one of the best runs, in terms of knocking off highly ranked guys and All-Americans, that I can remember ever in program history,” Garland said.

Spisak has shown a tendency, however, to wrestle to the level of his opponent, and that can be frustrating for his coaches.

Watching Spisak battle Retherford, Garland said, “I thought to myself, `This dude has come so far. Good night, he can beat anybody.’ That Retherford kid is an absolute hammer, and Spisak was four seconds away from beating him. So that was really cool. And then the way he beat Henderson was really neat.”

But Spisak has also lost to inferior wrestlers, and some of his victories have been closer than necessary.

“You can’t just show up for the ranked guys,” Garland said. “He’s one of the guys on the team that, when he goes out there, truly he knows that he can beat [anybody]. He knows. But for some reason, and we’re still trying to work through this, there have been matches where he hasn’t showed up, and that’s not OK. And he knows that. So the thing he’s working toward is consistency.”

A year ago, Spisak entered the ACC tournament seeded third at 141 pounds. In the first round, he fell to the No. 6 seed, “probably because I was looking ahead to the [second-seeded] Virginia Tech kid and looking ahead to the finals,” said Spisak, who bounced back from that upset to place third.

“I think I wrestle best whenever my back’s against the wall. Coach Garland always says that I wrestle best whenever I’m in the underdog situation.”

UVa finished second to Virginia Tech at last year’s ACC tournament. The Cavaliers advanced eight wrestlers to the finals. As Spisak looked on helplessly, only one of them won.

“I always say to my dad and my coaches that I get more nervous watching my teammates than I do myself,” Spisak said. “I’m so invested in these guys. I consider everyone on our team one of my brothers. I’ve never grown up with a brother. I have three sisters. These 29 guys, they’re all I got. I know I can control myself and what I do on the mat, but watching them, I just want to get out and wrestle for them, even though that wouldn’t be the best thing to do.”

During the championship round at last year’s ACC tourney, Spisak said, “I wanted every one of those guys to win so badly, and then watching each guy fall, one by one, it was heartbreaking. But whenever we go down, we always come up swinging.”

Garland, a former UVa wrestler, sees a lot of himself when he looks at Spisak.

“He’s a ham,” Garland said. “Well, I’m a ham, too, right? It’s funny, a lot of my own things that I admit are areas I probably need to do better at are some of the same areas I see in him. I can identify with the kid, and I have a lot of grace for him, because I’m the same way.

“The bottom line is, I love the kid because I know where his heart’s at and I know how much he loves this program, I know how much he loves his teammates, and I know how gifted and talented he is. He’s a guy that’s got a unique gift where, when he’s in the room, he has a way of making everybody feel special. And that’s why I think he’s going to be successful in life.”

Spisak, who’s in his final semester in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, hopes to enroll in the Curry School of Education for 2014-15 and earn a master’s in higher education.

“Forget about wrestling,” Garland said. “When he gets out of here, no matter what area he goes into, he’s going to be The Man. And that’s really neat. It’s really cool to coach a guy like that, but I think my job is to keep making sure he stays focused on the fact that he’s been gifted.

“God gave him these talents, and it’s his job to be a steward of those gifts. What’s he doing with them? Is he using them for his own glory, or is he using them for good? I think he’s in a learning process of figuring out how to do that, and that’s really neat to be a part of. He’s grown up and matured a lot every year since he’s been here.”

But Spisak, who lives with teammates Mason Popham, Zach Nye and Collin Campbell, has never stopped having fun, as anyone who saw him recently at the Aquatic and Fitness Center can attest. The wrestlers’ preparation for the ACC tournament includes swimming workouts.

“We all have our own Speedos, trust me,” Spisak said. “We come in the most ridiculous outfits we have. The swimming guys just laugh at us, and Coach just shakes his head every year, like, `Where did you get this stuff?’ ”

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