By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa wrestler Nick Sulzer loves to test himself against the team’s new assistant coach. He’s not, however, always happy about the results.
Sulzer, a fifth-year senior from Cleveland, is accustomed to success. He posted a 36-3 record last season and placed fourth at 165 pounds at the NCAA championships.
It’s happened more often, though, since Keith Gavin joined Garland’s staff in August. As a Pittsburgh senior in 2008, Gavin won the NCAA’s 174-pound title. He now competes for the U.S. national freestyle team at 86 kilograms (190 pounds), and he’s happy to share his knowledge of the sport with UVa wrestlers such as Sulzer.
On the mat.
“He’s in there every day working out with us,” Sulzer said. “So it’s not like he’s designing a schedule and then sitting back and just watching. He’s right in the thick of things with us, and I think that gains him a lot of respect from a lot of people on the team.”
For him, Sulzer said, training with Gavin is “bittersweet. It’s only bitter because he beats me so bad that it makes you feel like you’ve never wrestled before. But it’s sweet because he’s an amazing person and he’s an even better coach.”
Gavin, 29, replaced Alex Clemsen on the Cavaliers’ coaching staff. Clemsen left in June to become the No. 1 assistant at Missouri. Garland’s other full-time assistant is Jordan Leen, a former Cornell great who won an NCAA championship at 157 pounds in 2008.
Leen, an exceptional recruiter, also tutors Virginia wrestlers on the mat.
“With those two in combination, I have the best practice partners in the country,” Sulzer said. “I have one guy that won an NCAA title one weight below me and one that won an NCAA title a weight above me. It’s just different partners that bring different looks. They’re both so high-level that I have no choice but to bring it every day, or else it’ll be rough.”
Gavin, a former Pitt assistant, was based at the Ohio Training Regional Center in Columbus when Garland called him about the opening at UVa.
“He just seemed like a guy that I’d really want to work for,” Gavin said. “I just kind of asked around, and he had a really good reputation.”
What made the job especially attractive, Gavin said, was Garland’s assurance “that I would have a good amount of control over training: like setting the training plan and running the practices, which for me was really, really exciting. The last couple years I’ve just been training myself, and I’ve been around some great coaches in the U.S. and overseas, and I’ve been in training camps overseas. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve just never implemented for a college team.”
For Garland, the decision to entrust Gavin with that responsibility is already paying dividends.
“Keith’s the best technician I’ve ever worked with in 15 years, and I’ve worked with some good ones,” Garland said. “I’ve charged him with and given him full ownership of designing the technique, implementation, what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it, and then he runs it.”
Gavin’s approach is straightforward.
“My whole philosophy has always been that the way you get better at wrestling is to wrestle,” he said. “It’s easy to get distracted by these new things like CrossFit and workouts like that. Because if you do the same thing over and over every day, it gets boring and monotonous, but I think that’s how you get better. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You don’t need all the bells and whistles. You get better at wrestling through wrestling.”
In practice, Gavin mostly wrestles the team’s 165-, 174-, 184- and 197-pounders, though he’ll occasionally work with the heavyweights too.
“I don’t really like to, because I can’t move my neck afterwards,” he said, smiling.
Gavin dominates most wrestlers on the mat, but he “does it in a way that builds you up,” Garland said. “He’ll beat the pants off you and then tell you everything that you do right. And then he’ll tell you, `Here are some attack areas.’
“He has a way of connecting with the athlete in a way that’s respectful and never demeaning. So that’s why those guys adore him already, because he treats them with respect.
“That’s a gift. Because a lot of the coaches I’ve been around in my life do the opposite, where it almost goes over the line the other way. And that’s not how Coach Gavin operates, and that’s not how he coaches.”
Sulzer said: “He’s extremely supportive, which is awesome. He’s very positive. I went with him today, and it was rough, to be honest with you. It didn’t really go my way. But after he came up to me and was like, `Hey, focus on the things that you’re doing great. You’re wrestling tough.’ And those little words of encouragement just build you up and help you carry yourself through the next week and into the season.”
To Gavin, such an approach is essential, “because the guys are in college and they’re young, and they’ll remember everything you say to them,” he said. “It’s important to build them up and be positive, even if they’re not having the best day.
“What I focus on a lot is just letting them know that what they’re feeling and what they’re going through is completely normal, and that no matter how good you are, you’ll have bad days. You’ll have days where you don’t feel like doing it, and those are the days that matter the most.”
Garland, who as a UVa senior in 2000 was NCAA runner-up at 125 pounds, said Gavin’s “impact in the [wrestling] room has been insane. I can’t get over how much it’s helped us. But also you can talk about what he’s done with us as a staff in the office. His mind works completely different than mine and completely different than Coach Leen’s, and so we have three completely opposite personalities that somehow get along really well … It’s a good yin and yang.”
How long Gavin will continue to compete himself is uncertain. The possibility of pursuing a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for 2016 appeals to him, but that decision will come later.
“I’m kind of just taking it day by day,” Gavin said. “My main focus right now is on the team here at UVa and getting them ready and doing the best I can to help prepare them.
“I’m on the mat all the time. I lift when they lift. I’m wrestling with them as much as they want me to and as much as I can. The physical side of it’s not going to really be any different. But that’s where it kind of gets tricky, because I’m not thinking of getting myself better as a wrestler right now. When I’m wrestling with them, I’m not thinking about what I’m doing or how to get better. I’m thinking about what he’s doing and how can I help this guy and things like that.”
Virginia opens the season Nov. 2 at Memorial Gymnasium. Sulzer is one of three ACC champions on the Wahoos’ roster. Junior Blaise Butler, who’s now at 174 pounds, won at 157 last season. Sophomore George DiCamillo, who redshirted last season, won at 133 pounds in 2012-13.
In 2013-14, the `Hoos won 18 dual meets — the program record is 19 — and went 5-1 in ACC competition. They lost only three dual meets. Still, the Cavaliers came away from the season disappointed.
Virginia entered the ACC tournament as one of the favorites but finished third. Then, at the NCAA championships, the `Hoos tied for 23rd and had only one All-American, Sulzer.
Postseason performance was among the first subjects Garland raised with Gavin.
“I said, `That’s why we wanted you here so bad, Keith, because we want to go from good to great,’ ” Garland recalled. “We want to go from being a good team to a great team, and great teams place in the top 10 at the national tournament.”
NOTES: The Cavaliers will practice outdoors Saturday, on the grassy area next to Observatory Hill Dining Hall.
The practice will start around 3:45 p.m. — about when the UVa-North Carolina football game at Scott Stadium should be wrapping up — and run until 5 p.m. It’s free and open to students and the general public.
Coaches and players will be available to meet with fans and sign autographs at the event.
Also, tickets are on sale for UVa’s dual meet against Ohio State, Nov. 24 at 7 p.m. The Cavaliers usually wrestle at Mem Gym when they’re home, but this dual meet will be at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Buckeyes, who placed sixth at the NCAA championships last season, are expected to contend for the national title in 2014-15. Their stars include three-time NCAA champion Logan Stieber, one of Sulzer’s best friends.
In all, 16 wrestlers from Ohio State and UVa are included in the preseason Flowrestling rankings.