CHARLOTTESVILLE — The last senior introduced Thursday night at Memorial Gymnasium needed no introduction to University of Virginia wrestling fans.
Nick Sulzer, who’s ranked fourth nationally at 165 pounds, ranks third at UVa in career victories, and he’s likely to rise to No. 2 on the all-time list before he’s through next month.
“In a perfect world, we’d be able to keep him around forever,” Virginia coach Steve Garland said.
Garland knows that’s not possible, of course, and so he’s savoring the final chapters of Sulzer’s illustrious career. Sulzer wrestled for the last time at Mem Gym on Thursday night, and he went out in customary fashion.
With his parents, Keith and Susan Sulzer, watching from the bleachers, the fifth-year senior from Cleveland secured his 114th career victory, this one a 12-4 major decision over NC State’s Max Rohskopf.
“He put a stamp on it, man,” Garland said. “I got emotional when they introduced him, because they don’t make `em like that kid. That’s a pretty awesome kid, and gosh I love his family.”
As he took the mat before his match, Sulzer later said, it occurred to him that he was about to wrestle at Mem Gym for the final time. But former teammate Nick Nelson, who won 91 matches as Cavalier, had telephoned him, Sulzer said, “and he kind of told me about the emotions of it all and trying to control it. So I had a good game plan going in, trying to plan for that. But after [the match], the kind of standing ovation, it really got to me.”
Six other wrestlers, along with their parents, were recognized in a Senior Night ceremony before the Cavaliers’ final dual meet: Nick Kidd, Mason Popham, Billy Coggins, Derek Papagianopoulos, Gus Sako and Joe Spisak. The plan, of course, was to send them out with a victory, but NC State did not cooperate.
With two matches remaining, 13th-ranked Virginia led 20-13. But the 20th-ranked Wolfpack picked up a pin from defending NCAA champion Nick Gwiazdowski at 285 pounds and then a decision at 125, where Joe DeAngelo edged UVa’s Nick Herrmann 7-6, to pull out a 22-20 victory.
The loss was the fifth in their past seven dual meets for the Cavaliers (10-7 overall, 2-3 ACC). Of those defeats, however, four were by two points or fewer. The only blowout was a 30-6 loss to top-ranked Iowa at storied Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where Herrmann and Sulzer were the Wahoos’ only winners.
And so Garland did not despair Thursday night when Virginia dropped a dual meet at Mem Gym for the first time since Jan. 16, 2011.
“If we would have lost and not fought, if we would have lost and not competed in such a way, if we would have lost and didn’t scrap for every point, then we’d have a reason to be upset and freak out,” Garland said.
“That’s not what happened, though. I’m going to sleep the best I’ve slept in months, because our guys competed … We’re not fixing on the [result] we’re fixing on how we compete. Not just effort. But our techniques were great tonight, our mental toughness was great.”
At 133 pounds, redshirt sophomore George DeCamillo opened the dual meet with a first-period pin that gave the `Hoos a 6-0 lead. Other winners for UVa against NC State (16-5, 3-2) were Sulzer, redshirt freshman Andrew Atkinson, redshirt junior Blaise Butler and redshirt junior Zach Nye.
Atkinson defeated Chad Pyke 7-3 at 157 pounds. Butler, ranked sixth nationally at 174, earned a 17-6 major decision over Pete Renda. Nye, ranked No. 19 at 197, had to battle for 11 minutes — a regulation match lasts seven — to secure a 4-3 overtime win over Mike Boykin, the reigning ACC wrestler of the week.
As final seconds ticked off the clock in the last overtime period, with Nye riding Boykin, fans rose to their feet, and their applause rose to a crescendo.
“Nye’s tough,” Sulzer said. “It’s definitely mentally draining [to wrestle that long]. More than physical, it’s mental, and Nye has that down pretty well. He’s been in a lot of dogfights like that. Those are the kind of things that he’s going to need for NCAAs, because you’re going to be in a match like that every time. He’s good to go.”
The Cavaliers were missing two injured starters Thursday night: Sako at 149 pounds and redshirt freshman Tyler Askey at 184. Askey was a late scratch after being poked in the eye earlier in the week, and his replacement, redshirt sophomore James Suvak, was pinned in a pivotal match that cut Virginia’s lead to 17-13.
“That ended up being one of the deciding factors in the dual, but [Suvak] was ready,” Garland said, “and you’re proud of him for that. So again, that’s another good story. It’s not a bad story. It’s a good story.
“I just thought it was a heck of a dual meet. That’s what wrestling’s supposed to look like … That’s what ACC wrestling is now. Normally I would be pretty depressed about a streak like we’re on, but not after that. If we compete like that, and we stay together like that and fight like that, we’re going to have a heck of a postseason.”
The six-team ACC tournament is March 8 at Pittsburgh. The NCAA championships begin March 19 in St. Louis, Mo.
“We’re going to be peaking, and we’re going to be ready to go [in postseason], and I think that’s what’s important right now,” Sulzer said. “It’s not so much [about] the dual meets. Those are always great to win and having a regular-season record that looks clean [is good], but we’re battle-tested, and we’ve had a lot of great matches, so we’re going to be ready for the postseason.”
Garland’s focus between now and the ACC tournament?
“The first thing is staying together and being positive with each other. Everything we say to each other is going to be build up, not tear down,” he said.
“Secondly, it’s now about the individual. This is the fun stuff. The team stuff’s out the window, because if the individual takes care of himself at a tournament, the team benefits.”
In 2014, Sulzer won the ACC title at 165 pounds and then placed fourth at the NCAA tourney. He’ll try again next month to become the program’s first national champion.
“I’m still getting better,” Sulzer said Thursday night. “I have a lot to improve on, as you can tell. That’s what’s so fun about it: No matter how good you are, you still have things to work on, and that’s kind of my mindset right now. Just [keep] improving, so when I get to NCAAs I don’t have anything to worry about.”