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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– In the University of Virginia wrestling team’s 2018-19 opener, a dual meet against Indiana at Memorial Gymnasium, Louie Hayes was scheduled to compete at 125 pounds. He failed to make weight, however, and the Cavaliers forfeited that weight class.
The rest of the season proved similarly challenging for Hayes, who as a redshirt freshman in 2017-18 had advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals at 125 pounds. 
“Going into the season I anticipated going 125 [again], but I didn’t have a disciplined summer with my weight, didn’t really have that disciplined of a fall,” Hayes recalled. “And then when November came, my weight was just not where it needed to be, and it was just a constant battle going up and down through weight classes. I was starting too high during the week, and then I would make weight, and then I would go back up. It just got to the point where it was too much for me.”
In late December 2018, Hayes moved up to 133 pounds, but the transition wasn’t seamless. He posted an 11-11 record in that weight class. His season ended at the ACC tournament, where, as the No. 5 seed at 133, he went 0-2.
“It wasn’t the best season,” Hayes said. “I didn’t reach the goals that I had. It wasn’t necessarily a failure, but I learned from it, and I am more prepared than I was last year. Most importantly, I learned a lot about my diet. I learned you have to be disciplined. It’s not just a November-to-March thing, it’s a whole season thing.”
Now a redshirt junior, Hayes is 14-7 and ranked No. 19 nationally at 133 pounds. No longer does he feel uncomfortable in that weight class, where his opponents tend to be taller and lankier than at 125.
“It’s one of those things where I’m feeling better every single match,” Hayes said. “I’m learning how to wrestle differently. I’m learning how to get on bottom this year. I’m learning how to ride a little bit better. I’m learning how to protect my angles and shots and get into different attacks. It’s one of those things where it feels 100 percent better than it did last year at this point, and it even feels better than it did first week of the season this year.”
The Wahoos have two dual meets this weekend, both at Mem Gym. Virginia (5-2) hosts Chattanooga (4-6) at 7 p.m. Friday and VMI (4-7) at 1 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free for fans.
Hayes, who’s from the Chicago suburb of Orland Park, Ill., is on track to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in media studies. He’s minoring in entrepreneurship and hopes to pursue an M.S. in commerce in 2020-21.
He’s taken full advantage of his educational opportunities at the University. But when it came to wrestling, Hayes acknowledges, he didn’t always “listen to what I was being told. I for some reason was rejecting my diet, and I paid the consequences. I learned a valuable lesson.”
He remembers advice he received from former UVA great George DiCamillo, the NCAA runner-up at 141 pounds in 2016-17.
“George was like, ‘You don’t start a paper the night before it’s due. You don’t start studying for an exam the night before, so why would you do that with wrestling? You don’t train one day before a big tournament. You don’t start cutting your weight two days out. It’s a gradual coming-down process,’ ” Hayes said.
“Unfortunately for me, it was one of those things where I had to experience a hard lesson. I have 30 other teammates who can use my lesson to help them. It stunk in the moment. It wasn’t fun. It was not the ideal situation. But hopefully someone can learn from my mistakes.”
That Hayes can assess his strengths and weaknesses so objectively is one reason head coach Steve Garland loves having him in the Cavaliers’ program.
“He is a brutally honest kid, which makes it so much of a joy to coach him,” Garland said, “because most kids say they want the truth, but they don’t. Most kids say they want you to give them the hard stuff. But Louie’s actually one of those kids that can take it. And he is brutally honest about last year. He wasn’t doing the right things., and he suffered the consequences. And now this year, he’s doing everything right. His body looks great.”
Hayes said he’s learned that “I don’t need to have that cookie at night. I don’t need to drink five Gatorades at a practice. I had the plan laid out when I was going 125 initially last year. I’ve had the plan ever since I got to UVA, but more than anything it was that switch in my brain mentally, where it was like, ‘OK, it’s time to actually stick to it.’ “
The Cavaliers’ coaches encourage aggressive wrestling, and that occasionally leads to mistakes on the mat. “But we’d rather have that,” Garland said. “We’d rather have a guy who never backs off and never backs down. And that’s Louie.”
In 2017-18, the combination of Hayes at 125 pounds and Jack Mueller at 133 gave the Hoos a formidable duo at the bottom of the lineup. Mueller went into the 2018-19 season planning to redshirt but returned to competition in late December. He took over at 125 when Hayes moved to 133 and went on to post a 21-1 record.
Mueller’s lone loss came in the NCAA finals, against Iowa’s Spencer Lee. He’s ranked No. 2 nationally at 125, behind Lee, this season.
“I applaud Jack a lot,” Hayes said. “He and I are pretty similar in size for the most part, and he’s super disciplined about his weight. He knows how to manage his weight properly, and he knows that he can’t go up and down like I did.
“We have a lot of guys on the team that have really good diets. [Redshirt junior 197-pounder] Jay Aiello comes to mind first. That kid’s diet is strict, and he’s not going to go off his plan.”
Hayes has nine siblings: five younger brothers and four sisters. His brothers, who all wrestle, look up to Hayes, “so I get to show them and tell them these life lessons that I’ve experienced, so they don’t make the same mistakes I do,” he said.
At the end of the fall semester, the Cavaliers took a short holiday break during which Hayes returned home to Illinois. Then he met the rest of the team in Chicago for the Midlands Championships, at which he placed sixth.
Christmas at his house is “awesome,” Hayes said. “The best thing about it is, I still have a ton of little siblings at home. I get super excited for Christmas. I love seeing the little kids get all happy. It’s awesome having one of your little siblings come up to you and shake you and say, ‘Santa came! Santa came!’ “
For the Cavaliers, as for Hayes, the 2018-19 season was a disappointment. Virginia finished last at the ACC tournament and 23rd at the NCAA championships.
Led by Mueller and Aiello, the team has a better mindset this season, Hayes said. “It’s all coming together, and we’re getting there.”
The postseason success of many other teams at UVA has not escaped the wrestlers’ notice, Hayes said, and they’re eager to have a similar impact.
“It’s one big community,” he said. “Why not us?”