By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– The news that the NCAA was canceling its winter championships broke on a Thursday afternoon. It floored UVA wrestling teammates Jay Aiello and Jack Mueller, who rank among the nation’s elite at 197 and 125 pounds, respectively.
Aiello had trouble sleeping that night, as did Mueller, with whom he lives. Each awoke well before dawn the next day, and they started playing Xbox together around 4 a.m. About 90 minutes later, they headed to the wrestling room at Memorial Gymnasium for a workout, followed by a run.
The exercise helped burn off some of the frustration they felt, but it’s not all gone as they adjust to life in a country that’s dealing with the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
Aiello is a redshirt junior and has another year of eligibility left. Mueller is a senior who’s scheduled to graduate next month. He was the NCAA runner-up at 125 pounds last year and was seeded No. 4 in this year’s tournament.
“When I immediately heard the news, it was hard for me to even think about myself,” said Aiello, the No. 7 seed at 197 pounds. “I was like, OK, I do have another year.’ But for Jack, it could be over. Seeing how passionate he is and how hard he chased after this dream that he’s had ever since he was 3 years old, and now has the opportunity kind of stolen away from him, it really hurt me and really hurt him.
“We all know, or at least a lot of us know, that it’s not the end of the world. It is going to be better. We’re still going to be able to live our lives without it being the end, but for now it’s going to hurt, and you’ve just got to deal with the pain for now.”
UVA head coach Steve Garland has been in contact with Aiello and Mueller, who are dealing with the cancellation “even better than I could have hoped,” he said, in part because of their strong Christian faith.
Garland cited something he once heard Olympic wrestling champion Brandon Slay say.
“Things happen that aren’t in your control and they stink,” Garland said, “and sometimes life stinks, and sometimes things happen that you never would have signed up for on your own, and guess what? It’s our job to continue to be faithful and struggle through it the right way. And I think they’re both doing that right now. I think they’re both doing a great job of that from my conversations with them and the text messages that I’m getting, and I’m pretty relieved and proud of them for that.”
Aiello and Mueller were part of the recruiting class that enrolled at UVA in the summer of 2016, but their careers have unfolded much differently.
Mueller, who’s from Dallas, placed sixth at 125 pounds at the NCAA championships in 2016-17. Aiello, who starred in football and wrestling at Westfield High School in Northern Virginia, redshirted that season, compiling a 19-11 record while competing unattached.
In 2017-18, Mueller again advanced to the NCAA tournament, this time at 133 pounds, while Aiello struggled. He lost seven of his last eight matches to finish with a 13-15 record.
“His first year starting, he had a terrible season,” Garland said. “He was the guy that found a way to lose at the end of matches, and on top of that, he got a shoulder injury [at the ACC tournament] that required surgery and six months of rehab.”
Aiello rebounded in 2018-19 to earn the No. 7 seed at 197 pounds at the NCAA championships, and he finished the season with a 24-8 record. He went 1-2 at NCAAs, dropping his two matches by a total of three points.
“He’s the best story we have in terms of development,” Garland said of Aiello, an economics major who’s an outstanding student. “He came in as basically a guy who nobody recruited. Praise God, we saw him in camp and fell in love with him and his character and work ethic and brought him here.”
At the ACC tournament this month, Aiello was the only Cavalier to win a title––Mueller was upset in the 125-pound final––and he would have taken a 12-match winning streak into the NCAA championships in Minnesota. Aiello ended the season with a 27-4 recxord.
“I think he’s one of the most underrated studs in the whole country,” Garland said. “He should be talked about a lot more nationwide, because he’s that tough.
“I’ll tell you one thing: Nobody that wrestles Jay ever wants to wrestle him again, because of how hard he goes, and that’s what we want for all our guys. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there. With every single guy in our starting lineup, we want the other guy, when he steps off the mat, win or lose, to say, ‘Wow, I really don’t want to have to do that again.’
“Jay is what we’re pointing to with the rest of our guys, to say, ‘Hey, there’s no law against developing. There’s nothing that says you can’t get better exponentially.’ “
Because Mueller dominated almost from day one, Garland said, it’s “harder to point to him. I think some of the other guys just think, ‘He’s just a freak. He’s so good.’ Well, Jay wasn’t that good when he got here, and look at him now. He made himself that. He trusts the process, he listens to his coaches, he’s always getting extra work in. He does everything we want everybody else to do, so having a leader like that to point to is hopefully really going to help us moving forward with the younger guys.”
Aiello said: “It’s hard to go through a whole season and have it all end like that. But we’ll be OK. I don’t regret training as hard as I did or wrestling all those matches or making weight that many times, because those are good things that are going to mold me into something that’s better than just a good wrestler. It was a good year, but stuff happens like this, and you’ve got to look at what’s next. What can I do next to get ready [to capture] the ’20-21 national title?”
Of the six Cavaliers who qualified for the NCAA championships this season, only Mueller was in his final year of eligibility. Redshirt junior Louie Hayes was seeded No. 20 at 133 pounds, redshirt sophomore Quinn Miller was seeded No. 23 at heavyweight, redshirt freshman Justin McCoy was seeded No. 27 at 157 pounds, and redshirt sophomore Cam Coy was seeded No. 32 at 165 pounds.
Aiello’s football teammates at Westfield High included Brian Delaney, now the starting kicker at UVA. Aiello, who won a state title at 195 pounds as a Westfield senior, has weights and a wrestling mat at his family’s home in Chantilly, so he can stay in shape. It’s unclear when the Cavaliers will be able to start training together again in Charlottesville, but Aiello sees this as an opportunity to refresh and recharge.
“It’ll be nice to just get some time off from that and focus on some other things,” he said. “Wrestling is important, but it’s not everything in the world.”
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