Brian Courtney (Athens, Pa.), a redshirt sophomore on the Virginia wrestling team, has had a unique journey in his three seasons with the Cavalier program. From a successful redshirt season through a second season that ended early due to injury, he has adapted to the changes life has thrown at him (including rescheduling a wedding) while keeping his eyes on the ultimate end goal of continuing his wrestling career and earning his degree.
Q: You were an accomplished wrestler in high school with multiple state championships and a FloNational Championship. What was your recruitment like and what made you want to become a Cavalier?
COURTNEY: From third grade until entering my senior year I was pretty much on the Cornell train. I knew the coaches and had been going up there my whole life. It was going to take a lot for me to not go there, but I knew there was always that chance, so I decided to take all of my official visits. Something was drawing me toward Charlottesville and I didn’t know why, but I put them on my official visit list. Everything was awesome and Coach (Steve) Garland is amazing. My parents had gone with me on all of my other official visits, but on this one they dropped me off on Friday and picked me up on Sunday. The team was a great group of guys and the coaches had a lot of faith in the team to sell me on the program. It was pretty chill, but it was a lot of fun. It really showed me what the program was all about.
Q: What was the transition like from high school to that redshirt season in your first year of competition at UVA?
COURTNEY: I traveled a lot all through high school and had great coaches, but in college it changed a lot. It wasn’t the same. In college there almost wasn’t a guy I wrestled who wasn’t a state champion. Not that it means a lot in college, but it was a big reset. Everyone from Jack Mueller to Louie Hayes and Sam Book – they were all hammers. Besides the other first years, I wasn’t really scoring much for the first month or two. I wasn’t used to that, but it was exciting to get better, learn and improve fast. It was a big curve, but we all overcame it quickly because our coaches prepared us for that and all of my wrestling partners were awesome.
Q: Was there someone in particular that you relied on or was an influence?
COURTNEY: All of us as first years were very tight. We probably hung out six of seven nights a week in the dorms and got very close. We were all in the dorm together and did the same things, so we got really close. I still live with three of the guys I was with as first years in Michael Battista, Jake Keating and Quinn Miller. We have stuck together. Coach Garland was really helpful in the transition as someone to lean on and look up to. The Paulsons are great, too. They were pretty shy our first year but have opened up since then.
Q: Your redshirt year you had 21 wins with 13 bonus-point victories and nine pins. What worked so well for you that season?
COURTNEY: It didn’t start that way. My first three tournaments I think I went 2-2 each time. I hadn’t not placed at a tournament at all in high school. It was really strange. I remember my dad and I talking after my first match and I asked about the guy I wrestled and my dad told me “he had a losing record last year” and I had to ask myself what I was doing. The guy wound up making it to the NCAAs and was in the top 10, I believe, but it was really motivating and I didn’t get down on myself. I realized I was here and needed to get to there. I started 6-6 through my first three tournaments and broke through in a tournament at Lock Haven, I believe, and finished third. Then at the Southern Scuffle, I didn’t place but essentially made it to the blood-round (the round of competition where the winner is assured to place) and from there it got rolling and that felt good.
Q: Is there a particular match you remember as the one where things began to click?
COURTNEY: Yeah, I’d say it was the first match at the Southern Scuffle. It’s a big college tournament and I hadn’t started the season well. I was excited, but nervous. It was close after the first and then still close after the second, but in the third period I pinned my opponent and the lightbulb went off. I think I got three pins in that tournament and realized I could start doing well. My blood-round match, I got handled. It was 8-4, but it wasn’t a close 8-4 decision. I told myself no more. I started lifting heavier and I started eating better. I started taking things more seriously.
Sam Book and Scotty Kiyono came in with me and were my size, so they were good partners. Really starting around Scuffle it was Jack (Mueller) and Louie (Hayes) who showed they believed in me. They were guys I wrestled all the time, and they beat me up, but they saw something in me and believed in me. Their belief along with Coach Garland and my first years was really helpful. Their belief, along with my first year buddies, was big. Louie had done really well at the Scuffle his first year and told me it was a big tournament, but to take it in and have fun and that I could do it.
Q: You had a strong start to your second year following the redshirt season, but then you got sidelined with injury. Can you take us through what happened?
COURTNEY: It was something that had bothered me a little bit through high school where my knee had popped maybe once a year at practice. I would take the day off and be fine the next day. During that preseason, it popped several times, which was weird, so the coaches took me out of live action and I did pool workouts and things to stay fit. At the Journeymen Duals, I was wrestling Montorie Bridges (West Virginia) and it popped three or four times and I felt it a bunch. It didn’t affect how I was competing or the outcome of the match, but it was pretty painful afterwards. There wasn’t much we could do with it at that time, so we just talked about it and decided to wrestle, but be smart about it. A few weeks later, Louie wanted to move up a weight class and Jack came back out of a redshirt season. It was clear I wasn’t 100 percent and I had the option to either keep competing or get surgery. I decided if I could get four more years after surgery and wrestle at 100 percent, then I’d do the surgery. We took the rehab slow and made a six-month rehab an eight or nine-month rehab to be safe. But it has been great since.
Q: In your last match that season you pinned your opponent in a dual against Princeton in under a minute. Did that make the decision harder for you?
COURTNEY: It was a tough choice because we had a lot of tough duals coming up with a lot of really good wrestlers at 133 pounds. I hadn’t wrestled a lot of the top guys yet. Our next dual was going to be at (No. 6) Missouri and All-American John Erneste was their guy at 133 pounds. It was tough to say it was the time, but the doctor told me if I kept wrestling he wouldn’t feel comfortable because he thought it was the time to do it. It wasn’t easy to back off then.
Q: How did you stay involved with the team during your rehabilitation?
COURTNEY: I made it to every practice to be there even though I was either doing homework or knitting. I lived with a lot of the guys, so it was easy to stay involved. I never felt like I was excommunicated or anything.
Q: You would knit at practice? Was that a hobby of yours?
COURTNEY: Before I got surgery, I realized I was going to be sitting on my butt a lot, so I decided I wanted to knit myself a sweater. I taught myself how to knit and made myself a UVA sweater. I sew sometimes, so I thought it was be an easy transition. They are nowhere near the same thing. I thought it was cool to start with a long strand of yarn and turn it into something I could wear. It was a sense of accomplishment to finish that sweater. I made some hats for Christmas and some socks. It was something to do during my rehab and during practices. I still know how to knit, but I don’t do it very often. It frustrates me a bit because it’s so time consuming, but I still have all of my stuff.
Q: You returned to the mat this past season, what was it like getting out there again?
COURTNEY: It felt great. The first practice I felt like a new guy. I think it was great for my body to have a break. I felt strong and had been doing a lot of upper body weight and had done a lot of rehab on my legs. I felt great leading up to the season and it didn’t trouble me much. I got into some weird positions and had to do some rehab a couple of times, but it was ok.
Q: Was there a match where you felt like you were completely back?
COURTNEY: I wasn’t worried, but I wouldn’t say my first match was great. I got better as the year went on. The coaches kept telling me that and saying that if they saw me today, they wouldn’t think I was the same guy from the start of the year. Truthfully, I think the best match I wrestled all year was the last one in the consolation finals at the ACC Championships. Cole Matthews (Pittsburgh) is a great competitor and wrestler and he wrestled a great match. I think that was my best match and tournament even if it wasn’t the best results.
Q: What are you doing right now to stay in shape and what’s driving you toward the next season and a return to the mat?
COURTNEY: Well, it’s a lot of running. There is a local club here that has opened up to a few wrestlers. My younger brother is a wrestler and we have a little mat in our garage and we go against each other to stay in shape. We have a gym in the basement. I’m just doing whatever I can to stay in shape.
Q: You didn’t just have to make changes to your academic and athletic life with COVID-19, but you had to make some changes in your personal life as well?
COURTNEY: My fiancé and I had a date set for our wedding and unfortunately the coronavirus rained on that parade a little bit. We were supposed to get married in July, but virus started peaking about the time we were supposed to send out invitations. We kept checking to see if the numbers would go down, but it was a lot of unnecessary stress. We are postponing to next year. We don’t know a date yet, but we got a puppy in the meantime. We got a little “wedding canceled” puppy.
Q: Your fiancé has been in Charlottesville as well and how has that support been?
COURTNEY: Grace is in a great nursing program at Piedmont. She started at JMU for about three days. We’re from a small town and she didn’t realize how big the school was. She was choosing between a few Virginia schools before I decided to come to UVA. It’s great having her here. We run together all the time and she motivates me. She and my sister lived together here my first year while they were both at PVCC. It was great to have a little bit of home and a comfort system here. My sister came down at the same time as Grace, but she graduated from Ohio State just this past year.
Q: You have three years of eligibility left after the redshirt season in 2017 and then missing most of the 2018-19 season with your injury. What are your plans academically for the next three years?
COURTNEY: This next academic year I am scheduled to finish my undergraduate degree in Kinesiology. I hope to be able to pursue a masters’ degree in commerce in what will be my fifth year and then hope to take my sixth year to pursue a master’s degree in exercise physiology.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about getting back on the mat?
COURTNEY: I miss my team and I miss my coaches. I can’t wait to get all of it started back up again. The coaches tell us all the time that we have to embrace the experience of being a collegiate wrestler because one day it will all be over and we will miss it. It’s a privilege. We get to do this; we don’t have to do it. I enjoy the time with my brother, but it’s not the same as competing and training with my teammates.