By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The oldest of six boys, Louie Hayes is one of 10 children in a vibrant family. One or more of his brothers, Hayes said, said, might eventually surpass him in wrestling.
“They all definitely have a lot of potential,” said Hayes, who’s from the Chicago suburb of Orland Park, Illinois.
“We’re definitely a wrestling family. My dad, he wrestled when he was younger, and then all my brothers wrestle. Even my youngest brother” — who turns 4 this month — “he’ll mess around with my brothers on our mats.”
Hayes is setting the bar high for his brothers. A redshirt freshman at the University of Virginia, he’s ranked No. 13 nationally at 125 pounds.
Heading into the Virginia Duals, Friday and Saturday in Hampton, Hayes has a 20-4 record. Two of his losses were to last season’s NCAA finalists at 125 — Lehigh’s Darian Cruz and Minnesota’s Ethan Lizak. Another loss was to Rutgers’ Nick Suriano, who defeated Cruz and Lizak in 2016-17 but missed the NCAA tournament with an injury.
Of Hayes’ victories, four have been by pin, five by technical fall and two by major decision.
“It’s huge for our program the way he’s wrestling,” head coach Steve Garland said.
Most college dual meets start with the lightest weight class, 125 pounds, and work up from there. That means Hayes takes the mat first for the Wahoos, and with that distinction, he said, comes responsibility.
“I’ve got to set the pace for the team,” Hayes said. “Getting the ball rolling is really important to me.”
Next up for the `Hoos is sophomore Jack Mueller, who was an All-American at 125 pounds in 2016-17. Mueller is ranked third nationally at 133 this season.
“It’s invaluable, I think, to have those guys starting us off,” Garland said. “Dual meets are different from tournaments in that momentum is big, and guys are feeding off each other. Also, it’s not just the win or the loss, it’s the way somebody competes and provides energy for the rest of group, and that’s what we get right off the bat with Louie and Jack.
“With Louie, it’s the pace he keeps and the way he keeps shooting and the way he keeps his composure the whole time. Typically, he’s come from behind to win. There’s nothing more exciting than a guy who comes from behind with less than 30 seconds to go and finds a way to get it done, and that’s him.
“I would say he’s one of the best I’ve ever coached at that. He never, ever loses his composure, no matter what the situation is in a match. He’s tougher than heck. He can wrestle through pain, and he’s just so skilled. So then Jack feeds off that, and then Jack goes out and does what he typically does.”
In 2016-17, when Hayes competed unattached in tournaments, he and Mueller were both at 125. Even so, Hayes said, he never worried about where each would end up in the lineup this season.
“I knew it would work out,” Hayes said. “I kind of just let it fall into place. It’s working out now, me and Jack being a good 1-2 punch, starting duals off right, starting tournaments off right. We couldn’t really ask for a better situation.”
Garland, a UVA alumnus, was the NCAA runner-up at 125 pounds in 2000. He’s learned that most wrestlers grow up out of that weight class during their college careers.
“Louie may [stick at 125],” Garland said, “but I knew Jack wouldn’t. I thought Jack could end up being at 141 by the time it’s all said and done.”
Hayes, who won a state title at 113 pounds as a senior at Carl Sandburg High School, chose UVA over Illinois. After meeting the coaching staff and touring Grounds, Hayes said, he decided that Virginia was “the whole package” and committed the summer before his 12th-grade year.
That Garland is a former 125-pounder who still works out with his wrestlers added to UVA’s appeal for Hayes.
“That definitely was a big influence on me,” said Hayes, who lives with teammate Jack Walsh, “knowing that I’m going to get to train with an NCAA finalist every single day. The guy’s 40-something years old, and he’s still rolling around the mats. We’re pretty fortunate to have that.”
Hayes has represented Virginia in two prestigious tournaments this season: the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas and the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
At the Scuffle early this month, he won his first three matches before losing to Cruz, the reigning NCAA champion at 125. Hayes bounced back to win his final two matches in Chattanooga and took third place.
“I would have preferred to win, but it worked out pretty well,” Hayes said. “I got to wrestle a returning national champ, which is a great feeling, just to get a measuring stick. Obviously, it would have really great to come out with a victory, but I learned a few things.”
The Cliff Keen Invitational was held in early December. Hayes, seeded seventh at 125, was stunned in the first round by unseeded Michael Russo of Cornell.
“That was 100 percent on me,” Hayes said. “I don’t really want to put an excuse on it. I just didn’t wrestle my best.
“Right after that match, a coach came up to me and said, `Let’s see how you respond. The top guys in the country, they can respond in any situation.’ Right there, I was like, `I didn’t come all the way out to Vegas to go 0-2 in a tournament.’ As soon as I got off the mat, it was like, `OK, you gotta forget about it. You’ve got X amount of matches to place, and we’re not thinking about that loss anymore. We’re thinking about taking third.’ ”
Hayes won his next five matches in Las Vegas before losing to Lizak. In his final match, Hayes edged Oklahoma’s Christian Moody to take seventh place.
“That obviously wasn’t the goal, but it was definitely a good experience,” Hayes said. “I learned that it doesn’t matter if I lose the first match. I can come back from any situation.”
Garland said the Cliff Keen Invitational exemplified Hayes’ composure and mental toughness. In his first match after losing to Russo, Hayes pinned Harvard’s Lukas Stricker in 30 seconds.
“Wrestling back [after a loss] in our sport is extremely hard to do, not only the physical part of it, that’s hard enough, but the psychological part,” Garland said. “You just got your heart broken, and now, 45 minutes later, you gotta suit back up and jump back up there [on the mat].
“I won’t name names, but I’ve had guys that were blue-chip recruits that when they lose once, they look terrible in the wrestle-backs. I call it the `end of the world theory.’ They just can’t believe it’s happening to them, and they can’t recover.
“Louie’s never done that, and that’s why everybody on staff loves him and every coach he’s ever had has loved him. Because when he gets taken down in the room, he just pops back up. He doesn’t pout. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself. You’d be surprised at how big a deal that is in our sport, how many guys who are supposed to be good on paper actually don’t do that well. They feel sorry for themselves and put their heads down, and then they wonder why they’re sliding backwards. You can’t do that in our world.”
The Cavaliers, who placed 15th at last year’s NCAA championships, start only one senior this year: 165-pounder Andrew Atkinson.
“Most of our guys are second- and third-years,” said Hayes, who’s interested in majoring in media studies. “We want to have success now, though. The whole goal is to continue and grow, and hopefully next year we’re right there with the top teams in the country. But there’s no reason why this year we can’t have one of the top finishes in the ACC and continue rolling in the NCAAs. The whole goal is to get better every single day and bring in top recruits every single year, and for the guys that are at UVA right now, to just continue building.
“Hopefully every single year we’re building and getting better, and we’re hunting for a trophy. We won’t want to be content just finishing 15th. That was good last year, but we want a trophy. We want an ACC title. We want NCAA championships.”
The recruiting class that entered UVA in the summer of 2016 embodies the qualities Garland wants his program to exhibit. Hayes and his classmates have distinguished themselves on the mat, in the classroom, and in the community,
“They do everything right,” Garland said. “I would say that they’re a transformational group of kids: not just Louie and Jack, but all of them collectively.”