By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Five years after the University of Virginia last hosted the ACC wrestling championships, the tournament is back at John Paul Jones Arena.
This time, UVA head coach Steve Garland said, he has the proper perspective.
In 2011, Garland recalled this week, “I was obsessed with the team winning the tournament. And I remember actually almost losing touch with reality. After the tournament I was so inconsolable that I was in the parking lot of JPJ pouting for an hour and a half. Couldn’t speak and couldn’t move. That’s just not normal.”
The Cavaliers entered the tournament that year with a legitimate chance of capturing a second straight ACC title. They faltered, though, and finished third, well behind champion Maryland and runner-up Virginia Tech.
“Everything in athletics is about what you’re fixed on,” Garland said Monday. “At that point I was so fixed on the outcome, I forgot about the process. Now, I’m process-fixated. I’m so excited about working with each kid this week, trying to get them to be the best they can be for Sunday.”
The ACC tournament, a one-day event, begins Sunday at JPJ with first-round matches at 11 a.m. The semifinals start at 1 p.m. and the finals at 7 p.m., with the consolation semifinals and consolation finals at 3:30 and 5 p.m., respectively.
Tickets can be purchased online Saturday and Sunday morning or at the gate Sunday. For regular-season dual meets, admission is not charged. Tickets for the ACC championships are $10 for adults and $5 for seniors. Ages 18 and younger get in free.
Each match Sunday can be seen online at ESPN3.
Last year in Pittsburgh, Virginia entered the conference tournament with a 2-3 record in ACC dual meets and wasn’t considered a serious contender for the title. But each of UVA’s 10 wrestlers finished fourth or better — led by champions Nick Sulzer and George DiCamillo — to shake up the standings.
The Wahoos finished with 85.5 points, well ahead of runner-up Pitt (71) and third-place Virginia Tech (59.5), which had posted a 5-0 record in ACC dual meets. The ACC title was UVA’s fourth overall and second under Garland.
This year, the `Hoos are decided underdogs. During the regular season, they posted a 6-7 record in dual meets, including a 1-4 mark against ACC foes, and they’re not ranked in the latest coaches’ poll. NC State, meanwhile, is No. 2, Virginia Tech is No. 3, and North Carolina is No. 14.
Still, Garland said, “What’s cool about the ACC is, there’s always a team that comes out of the woodwork. Last year no one expected us to win, and we won. But I also think with each guy, the key is to know now’s the time of year to be selfish. If you take care of yourself, you take care of the team. You fight like crazy on our your own bout, and that takes care of the next guy.”
The `Hoos are “a momentum team,” Garland said. “We’ve seen the momentum this year hurt us a little bit when we got on a bad run, but we’ve also seen the momentum help us over the years, so we need to get some momentum going early in that tournament Sunday.”
One UVA wrestler is seeded No. 1 in his weight class: DiCamillo at 133 pounds, at which the redshirt junior has won two ACC titles. DiCamillo’s record this season is 25-3.
Other Cavaliers who could contend Sunday include senior Nick Herrmann (12-7), the No. 4 seed at 125 pounds; redshirt sophomore Andrew Atkinson (23-7), the No. 3 seed at 157; and fifth-year senior Zach Nye (22-8), the No. 3 seed at 197.
The 157-pound class also includes NC State’s Thomas Gantt and Virginia Tech’s Nick Brascetta, who are ranked Nos. 4 and 5 nationally, respectively. Atkinson lost 11-9 to each of them during the regular season.
“Andrew’s biggest strength is his mind,” Garland said. “He has no insecurities. He doesn’t struggle with fear in any way, shape or form. He doesn’t care who the other guy is. He’s going to wrestle everybody the exact same, and there’s no quit in him. Yeah, he’s got his work cut out for him — not just in ACCs, but nationally — but if anybody can do it, it’s him, because of that gift.”
Nye, a two-time ACC runner-up at 197, battled injuries during the second half of the regular season. But he continued to compete, without complaint.
“We had so many other things going on and so many other injuries that we needed our leader, we needed our captain out there,” Garland said. “And so he sucked it up for the team, and now he’s getting healthy and now he feels good, and when Zach feels good, he’s capable of some pretty special things.”
This is Garland’s 10th as head coach at his alma mater, and it’s been a trying one for him. He expected to have Blaise Butler, one of the nation’s top 174-pounders, in the lineup, but Butler transferred to Missouri after the 2014-15 academic year. Moreover, injuries to key wrestlers, including DiCamillo, cost the Cavaliers a couple of dual meets.
The struggles haven’t been fun, Garland acknowledged, “but I’m also excited about who I’m going to be on the back end of this.”
He also likes where the program is headed. But Garland noted that his young wrestlers “have a lot to live up to.” Garland cited the standard set by veterans Nye, DiCamillo, Atkinson and heavyweight Pat Gillen, as well as such former UVA standouts as Sulzer, Matt Snyder, Jon Fausey, Nick Nelson, Derek Valenti and Jedd Moore.
“Those are special kids,” Garland said. “That’s who we are. If you want to talk about an identity of Virginia wrestling, these are the guys that you go to. The young guys need to understand that that’s the history of this program. That’s who they need to strive to be like. Because those guys had to figure it out in every area of their lives, and that’s my dream: to have 10 of those guys who have it all figured out.”