By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — For those unfamiliar with Nick Hamilton and his potential on the mat, the University of Virginia wrestler’s run through the recent ACC Championships might have seemed like something out of a Hollywood script.

A redshirt freshman from La Vista, Neb., Hamilton entered the tournament as the No. 4 seed at 165 pounds. En route to the ACC title, he won by major decision over No. 5 seed Isaias Estrada (North Carolina) and then knocked off No. 1 seed Derek Fields (NC State) in the semifinals and No. 3 seed Connor Brady (Virginia Tech) in the final.

“I knew had an opportunity to do really well at this tournament,” Hamilton said. “I was confident that I had an opportunity to make some noise.”

Never mind that, during the regular season, he barely beat Estrada and lost to Fields and Brady.

“I knew I was right there with all of them,” Hamilton said. “I knew walking away from everybody I wrestled this year that I could have beaten them. I needed to make small adjustments technique-wise and mindset-wise and I think that was kind of the biggest difference when I wrestled them again. My technique was locked down, I had a better game plan, and I really was a lot more focused. I think some of the duals I wasn’t as focused as I probably could have been, but it’s my first full season, so it’s more of an experience thing, I would say.”

If Hamilton’s performance stunned many who followed the ACC tournament, UVA head coach Steve Garland wasn’t surprised by what unfolded March 10 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Hamilton, after all, came to Virginia as a heralded recruit, and he posted a 13-2 record as a freshman in 2022-23, competing unattached at 165 pounds.

Justin McCoy moved up to 174 pounds this season and Hamilton became the Cavaliers’ starter at 165. His regular-season record (9-7) wasn’t impressive, but there were extenuating circumstances.

Not only did Hamilton have to contend with injuries and concussion, he missed an extended period of time with mononucleosis.

“This is what I’ve been saying to all the pundits and ACC people and reporters that I’ve talked to who cover our sport and are like, ‘Why hasn’t this guy done this or why hasn’t that guy done that?’ ” Garland said. “Well, injuries are that big of a deal. It’s kind of hard to get better at wrestling when you can’t wrestle. It’s kind of hard to develop when you’re not on the mat.

“Nick was out for a month with mono, where he couldn’t even get out of bed. And so my point is: How did he do it? Well, he actually got healthy and he was able to train, he was able to learn, he was able to work with [assistant coach Trent Paulson], he was able to work with his teammates, he was able to break down film, he was able to do the things it takes to get better at wrestling. And so now that he’s at least somewhat healthy, he’s been able to actually improve and apply what he’s learned.”

Among the other wrestlers who won ACC titles Sunday were Virginia Tech’s Mehki Lewis, who edged McCoy in the 174-pound final, and NC State 197-pounder Trent Hidlay. Lewis and Hidlay added their names to the list of wrestlers who have won four ACC championships, but the tournament’s Most Outstanding Wrestling award went to Hamilton.

He became the first Cavalier to be so honored since Brent Jones in 2009.

“I knew it was a possibility,” Hamilton said, “because obviously, other than my coaches, nobody expected me to go out there and win it, I guess. But I wasn’t too concerned about it. If it happened, it happened, but it’s an honor and I’m glad that I did.”

Nick Hamilton with ACC commissioner Jim Phillips

Hamilton, who’s seeded No. 30 at 165 pounds, is one of four UVA wrestlers headed to the NCAA Championships, along with McCoy (No. 13 seed at 174 pounds), Marlon Yarbrough (No. 23 seed at 133) and Kristian Kinsey (No. 31 seed at 197). The tournament starts Thursday in Kansas City, Mo.

This will be the fifth trip to the NCAAs for McCoy, who won the ACC title at 165 pounds last season. Hamilton wasn’t eligible for the NCAA tournament last year, but he traveled with Virginia’s qualifiers to Tulsa, Okla., where he served as a warm-up partner for them at nationals.

The experience helped him realize “that, yeah, it’s a big event, but it’s still just a tournament like every other tournament,” Hamilton said. “The only difference is the pressure you put on yourself. So I’ve just got to make sure I get out there and go after it, regardless of what happens … It’s going to be a tough tournament. Nobody there is going to be a pushover, so I’m going to have to grind out probably every match.”

Hamilton was born in Nebraska and lived there for most of his childhood. The caliber of wrestling in Iowa was superior, however, and his family moved there after he completed middle school. Hamilton spent two years at Underwood High near Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he launched a legendary high school career.

As an Underwood freshman, he was state runner-up at 138 pounds. A year later, he was crowned state champion at 145 pounds. Due to family circumstances, Hamilton moved back to Nebraska and enrolled at Papillion La Vista High as a junior.

His ascent in the sport continued. He won state championships at 152 pounds (in 2021) and at 160 (in 2022), finishing his high school career with a record of 199-3, and he won a junior national championship in 2021.

So how did a phenom from the Midwest end up at UVA, a school to which he had no ties? Garland’s staff includes the Paulson twins—assistant coach Trent and associate head coach Travis—and they grew up in Council Bluffs. Their club coach later worked with Hamilton, whom he recommended to the Paulsons.

“So I kind of found my way out here through them,” Hamilton said.

He’s a long way from Nebraska, but Hamilton said he hasn’t experienced any culture shock in Virginia.

“Our wrestling team is very close-knit,” he said. “I felt right at home with the whole team and everybody right as soon as I got here, and I think having the chance to be on a team probably helped me out a lot. There’s some small differences, but all in all, it’s been a smooth transition and I love it here.”

His mentors at Virginia include McCoy, a graduate student who’s been a pillar of the program. “We’re always training together,” Hamilton said. “Justin’s one tough dude, very crafty, with a lot of experience. He’s always been somebody I look up to, so I just I try and follow in his footsteps.”

Hamilton, who’s been accepted into UVA’s prestigious McIntire School of Commerce, refused to let his medical issues deter him this season.

“The concussion wasn’t fun, but that one was more annoying than anything,” Hamilton said. “The mono was awful. I was sick for a full month, and there was a week that my tonsils swelled up, and so I couldn’t eat anything solid for a week. That was the worst part of it.”

Even so, he added, “I think it was a good mental reset in a way. Even though body-wise I was feeling horrible, I think it let me kind of relax. I think it was a good thing. It helped me really, really want to get right back to it after I got done being sick. I hit the ground running again and I wanted to get back in shape as fast as I could get back out there. It wasn’t amazing. I can’t say I’d want to get mono again. But I made the most of it as I could and just took one day at a time.”

Garland said Hamilton’s strength include his ability to absorb and then apply information from the coaches. It can be challenging for wrestlers to combine “intelligence and mat sense with toughness,” Garland said, and the ACC tournament showed how far Hamilton has come on that front.

“He combined really hard, tough wrestling with very smart wrestling,” Garland said. “That’s a rare combination. That’s what it takes to win at the highest level and at our level. You can’t beat yourself out there, and Nick Hamilton, this particular tournament, did not beat himself. He stayed within himself and found ways to win in really hard, tough situations.”

Hamilton’s father passed away in 2021. They were extremely close, and that makes Hamilton’s achievements that much more remarkable. He’s excelling both athletically and academically at UVA.

“What this kid has been through—not just this year with all the injuries, illness, concussion and mono and everything else—but also what he had to battle through just to get here, it’s just insane,” Garland said.

“Maybe that’s why he’s doing so well, because of that adversity, because of that purifying pain in his life, but he’s been through more than anybody should ever have to go through in a lifetime, just at his young age. And so it’s a pretty incredible story.”

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