Virginia Tech Wrestling Season Recap, Part 1: Hokies Battle Injuries; Young Wrestlers Emerge

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It was a long roller coaster of emotions this year for Virginia Tech wrestling.  I’ll do my best to put the schedule into perspective, starting with the summer and going right through the NCAA’s.  Strap in and follow along.

Preseason Shifts

So Virginia Tech Head Coach Kevin Dresser, often attributed with the ability to “Sell ice to Eskimos” reached into the wilds of Montana and pulled an Olympic silver medalist out of his mountain retreat to place him in the wrestling room in Blacksburg.

Mike Zadick (photo by Ivan Morozov)
Mike Zadick (photo by Ivan Morozov)

Mike Zadick, after flying to meet the team, bonded quickly with its members and bought in completely to the program’s goal to “Raise the Bar,” seeing a real opportunity to make a positive impact.  He joined the staff as a volunteer assistant coach, using the newly developed Southeast Regional Training Center to support his appointment.

With Zadick came Derek St. John, a 4x All-American and all-time great wrestler for the Iowa Hawkeyes.  St. John joined the staff in an official capacity as volunteer Director of Wrestling Operations.

Additionally, St. John seemed to be an excellent potential training partner to get Virginia Tech senior Nick Brascetta over the final hump to an NCAA title, as St. John was the last wrestler to beat this year’s NCAA Hodge winner, Oklahoma State wrestler Alex Dieringer. In their first practice go-live however, Brascetta injured his ribs, setting the stage for an injury-riddled season for the Hokie senior.

At the same time Tech attempted to attract a 141 lb transfer.  VT was inches away from convincing senior Zach Horan, a top-ten 141 lb wrestler at Central Michigan to transfer to VT, but the Chippewa got cold feet at the last minute.

So VT would enter the season with unknowns at 141 lbs and 165 lbs.  To fill these holes, Tech asked redshirt freshman Solomon Chishko to cut down to 141 lbs and true freshman David McFadden to step in and compete at a D1 level from day 1.  Both would grow throughout the season and show they were up to the task.  VT also began the season without redshirt sophomore Dennis Gustafson, who continued to recover from offseason surgery and was expected to return to the lineup in January.

Early Season

NWCA Invite

(Editor’s Note: the first version of this article posted did not include mention of Zach Epperly in this paragraph. We have updated the article.)

VT for the first time had three wrestlers invited to the main event of the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) All Star Classic.  This year redshirt sophomore Zach Epperly, redshirt junior Ty Walz and redshirt senior Nick Brascetta all merited the invites due to their rankings.  Brascetta was forced to withdraw after receiving the strangest case of frostbite while icing his knees.  Walz, however went out and wrestled University of Michigan  wrestler Adam Coon, leading to a dominant win, and Walz announced himself as a HWT to be reckoned with.  Epperly also defeated Kyle Crutchmer of Oklahoma State, in controversial fashion, as the new application of the interlocking fingers rule came into play.  The win would temporarily elevate Epperly to the #1 ranked 174 lb wrestler in the country.

Crushing Iowa State

VT started the season out with three huge dual matches.  First, the Hokies welcomed historic powerhouse Iowa State into Cassell Coliseum and clobbered the Cyclones.  The most notable moment in this dual was true freshman David McFadden pounding his chest after upsetting then #6 ranked Tanner Weatherman, sending shock waves through the 165 lb weight class.

David McFadden (photo by Ivan Morozov)
David McFadden (photo by Ivan Morozov)

Behind the scenes there had been whispers about McFadden’s prodigious talent in the training room in Blacksburg, but to have the hype justified in one match was incredibly exciting.  McFadden and Weatherman would go on to have quite the history throughout the year, culminating in the NCAA tournament, where McFadden again defeated Weatherman to earn All-American honors.

Showdown with Penn State

VT then hosted #1 ranked Penn State in Cassell in front of the largest wrestling crowd south of the Mason-Dixon since 1980 at Auburn.

Since the start of his coaching tenure at Tech, Kevin Dresser had tried over and over to complete the “Drive for 5k,” trying various marketing techniques to get 5,000 fans in Cassell for a wrestling match.  VT eclipsed that mark, with 5,079 reported as the official attendance for the event.

The Hokies lost the dual meet, which seemed at the time to be a bit of a disappointment for Tech fans. But with a season’s perspective, VT was the only squad nationally that came within spitting distance of PSU’s massive talent stockpiles.  The two biggest highlights of the match were a 4-3 upset win by Virginia Tech wrestler Joey Dance over the future 125 lb national champion Nico Megaludis.  Dance had a huge reversal to beat Megaludis and give the Hokies some momentum to start the dual.

Joey Dance celebrates his win against Penn State (photo by Ivan Morozov)
Joey Dance celebrates his win against Penn State (photo by Ivan Morozov)

Three weights later, Solomon Chishko created another upset of the preseason #1 ranked Jimmy Gulibon.  Gulibon was somewhat overranked, but it was a true “Welcome to NCAA Wrestling” moment for Chishko.

VT took setbacks at 157 and 174, where PSU’s freshmen dealt losses to Tech’s expected hammers, Zach Epperly and Brascetta. We would come to find out that Epperly suffered a hip pointer and Brascetta partially tore one of his MCLs. Their absence in the lineup became a theme for the remainder of the season.

Additionally, Virginia Tech’s Sal Mastriani suffered a high ankle sprain, which proved to be incredibly detrimental to his blue collar wrestling style for portions of the season.  Tech went on to lose the dual 21-15, the closest any team across the county came to PSU all season.

Journey Out West

VT then returned a road trip favor from last year, heading to the middle of nowhere to wrestle North Dakota State and South Dakota State.  VT did so without the services of Mastriani, Epperly, or Brascetta, leaving a vulnerable lineup against a top 25 team in SDSU.

Virginia Tech redshirt sophomore Jared Haught came up with a huge victory over SDSU’s Nate Rotert, and Solomon Chishko held serve against a very good former Iowa transfer, now SDSU wrestler Seth Gross, securing a very close 20-16 win for the Hokies and righting the ship.

VT continued on to Fargo, ND to meet up with former Hokie great, now NDSU wrestling coach Jarrod Garnett.  VT widened the margin of victory in this contest, prevailing 23-13 over NDSU without three starters.  Redshirt Freshman Zack Zavatsky remained tantalizingly close to his first big college win, falling 7-5 in dramatic fashion to NDSU’s Hayden Zillmer.  Still, without three important starters VT managed to escape the northern plains unscathed.

Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational 2015 (CKLV)

The traditional CKLV trip this season seemed to be a bit of a disappointment with the injured squad.  In the 2014 edition, Tech wrestled well enough to take home a team trophy from the event.  This time around, Tech failed to send a complete team, having Brascetta and Epperly stay home to get healthy.  As a result, Tech lacked the firepower to challenge for the top spot.

The tourney was not without notable results, though, and it was finally the coming out party for Zavatsky.  The other freshmen in the lineup had previously had their first big moments, but a top win still eluded Zavatsky.  He rectified that with two top-ten wins over Blake Stauffer (Arizona State) and Willie Miklus (Missouri), and lost a nail biter with future rival Domenic Abounader (Michigan).

Zavatsky’s third place finish was the last breakthrough performance needed from the freshmen Tech debuted this year, and it started to signal the youth movement taking hold in Blacksburg. More importantly, Ty Walz accomplished a program first.  Walz dominated the HWT field, with two pins and a tech fall before claiming the CKLV HWT Title, our first ever champion.

VA Duals Setbacks

This season Coach Dresser decided to employ a new scheduling strategy.  He felt rest in the month of December was needed to get the lineup healthy and rest our starters, and his words seemed to be prophetic.  VT limped into December with major injuries to three starters and needed the time to heal.  Additionally, around Thanksgiving, redshirt sophomore Kevin Norstrem made the decision to part ways with the program to pursue his academic goals, leaving the Hokies with another hole at 133 lbs.

The decision to rest during December meant VT would forego their traditional December tournament at the Midlands Championship and would miss the chance to match up with the Iowa Hawkeyes.  Instead, after a Northern VA showcase match at George Mason, VT headed to the Tidewater to attempt to defend their title from the previous year at the Virginia Duals.

The Hokies were drawn into a pool with the Citadel and Bucknell, and steamrolled the competition.  The most notable result was the return of Virginia Tech redshirt sophomore Dennis Gustafson, down at 133 lbs after a redshirt year competing at 141 lbs. Gustafson came out red hot from the start of the tournament, with a fall in his first match back.

After winning their pool, VT advanced to the championship bracket, first facing Arizona State, then meeting Iowa state. Virginia Tech dominated a very good Arizona State squad, who remain a year away from national top 10 finishes, with a final score of 28-12.

Six of the Sun Devil points were earned through a Virginia Tech medical forfeit, when Jared Haught was unable to finish his match.  Haught had previously attempted to do the splits in a TD defense and tweaked his hamstring during the exchange, bringing the injured Hokie body count back up to three.

Tech advanced to the championship match to again face ISU after their season opener.  This time the result would be flipped in a match that potentially changed the course of Virginia Tech’s postseason.  First, Gustafson lost a heart breaker to ISU’s NCAA qualifier Earl Hall, with a last second reversal.  Then with its depleted lineup, VT attempted to use three backup wrestlers, bumping Virginia Tech redshirt senior Austin Gabel to 197 lbs in an attempt to beat back the Cyclones.  Ultimately, VT lacked the firepower and suffered a disappointing 16-14 defeat.

This loss would have ramifications for both Gustafson’s NCAA bid hopes and Virginia Tech’s national coaches’ rank.

VT Returns to the Moss Arts Center

On the heels of defeat, VT returned to Blacksburg to collect itself on a theater stage.  For the second consecutive year, the Hokies wrestled in the brand new Moss Arts Center (MAC) exposing fans to the confluence of Ancient Art and Modern Art.

In what is one of the better spectacles in college wrestling, 1,300 fans filled the MAC for two consecutive nights. VT first downed a very dangerous UNI squad 19-15, then earned their first ACC win in dominant fashion, 27-13 over a now-ranked UNC Tar Heel squad.

The UNI match was highlighted by an 11-5 win by McFadden at 165 lbs and the UNC match featured the long awaited return of Nick Brascetta to the lineup, though Haught and Epperly remained sidelined.

vt_wrestling_vs_uni_2016_01
David McFadden gets a leg up in his match in the Moss Arts Center (photo by Ivan Morozov)

The matches themselves were a cross between UFC fights and drama productions, putting two men front and center in an acoustically perfect building.  The athleticism and willpower of the athletes really translated well, and the result was a spectacle very rare in the current NCAA wrestling landscape.

The ‘Eers Come Calling

The Hokie grapplers prepared to settle in to the regular season stretch with a rivalry match.  WVU came calling to Cassell on senior night and played host to a huge crowd, as VT sent off four seniors and returned its lineup to full strength.

The Hokies started the match with fireworks as Joey Dance handled WVU’s 2015 national finalist Zeke Moisey 9-5.  Dance looked superior in all stages of the match, frustrating Moisey.  VT then continued to slay Mountaineer after Mountaineer, with four straight bonus point victories from 133-157 lbs.

This insurmountable lead allowed coach Dresser to send out backup redshirt senior Austin Gabel at 184 lbs to face former VT wrestler and WVU transfer Bubba Scheffel.  Gabel prevailed over his friend and former teammate 5-1, creating the perfect sendoff for the senior.

Austin Gabel picked up a win against WVU's Bubba Scheffel (photo by Ivan Morozov)
Austin Gabel picked up a win against WVU’s Bubba Scheffel (photo by Ivan Morozov)

With Gabel’s win, VT secured the dual, allowing Haught to rest his hamstring.  Virginia Tech senior Dan Garwood replaced Walz on senior night at 285 lbs as well.  Garwood, a high quality backup, took it to WVU’s AJ Vizacarrondo, scoring multiple takedowns to win the match 7-5.

In addition to Brascetta, Gabel and Garwood, Virginia Tech said goodbye to local HWT senior Brandon Taylor.  Garwood and Taylor were incredibly high quality backup training partners for Walz and contributed to Walz’ continued success this season.  The VT program is stronger due to the efforts of this group of four seniors, and their talent and work ethic will be missed.

This match would also be another time Brascetta was sent to the bench with an injury, revealing after the season that he tore his other MCL (both knees had partial tears this season).

Next: the ACC and NCAA’s

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12 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. I am not a big fan of wrestling but I have kind of known the Epperly boys mom off and on since she was in high school. Elise Epperly should get some press. Great Mom.

    1. This is so refreshing to be able to get a synopsis of an excellent historical season. Thanks Jerseyhokie.

      1. That was the goal with this first article. Document some of the things that might not show up on hokiesports while learning how this whole article submission process works.

  2. Part 1 is fantastic!! I follow the team closely and wasn’t aware of some of the background details. Looking forward to part 2.

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