In the summer doldrums, I’ll attempt to take a crack at covering Virginia Tech wrestling’s potential 2016-2017 lineup. A caveat as I begin: This is purely speculative and may change quite a bit before the season begins in early November.
Wrestling recruiting, more so than football recruiting, is a five year cycle, not four, as most wrestlers take a redshirt year. Therefore, most incoming weight classes will be focused on current juniors, not departing seniors, and we see that in Tech’s current incoming class. Heavy emphasis was placed on adding both quality and quantity to the 125 and 285 lb weight classes as Joey Dance and Ty Walz prepare for their senior season. Additionally, the departure of Kevin Norstrem and the likely move by Solomon Chishko from 141 to 149 required Tech to add depth at the 141 lb weight class. With this in mind, I’ll try to cover each class briefly.
125 – This weight has been and will remain Joey Dance’s. Dance has been the starter since the moment he stepped on campus at Virginia Tech, and I expect him to remain in this position to close his senior campaign. Many have speculated that Dance may use his potential redshirt year, but I expect him to finish his eligibility in the upcoming season provided his ankle recovers.
Another problem that has, at times, frustrated Joey is his weight management. This will remain a storyline throughout the season, and I will state for the record that I think Joey is worlds better as a 125 lb-er rather than a 133 lb-er.
Behind Dance, some talented freshmen enter the room in Blacksburg. Headlining the group is Kyle Norstrem, younger brother of former hokie wrestler Kevin Norstrem. Kyle sports just about every conceivable high school accolade, and on paper is Tech’s highest rated incoming recruit. I see Kyle as a very good 125 lb wrestler, but he definitely needs a redshirt year if possible. He has the same excellent defensive positioning and hips as his older brother, with developing offense.
The other two names to watch in the 125 weight class are Ryan Burns, a greyshirt wrestler who matriculates into the program from the upstate New York region, and Joey Prata, a Richmond wrestler, who fared very well his junior and senior seasons at the prep level. Both wrestlers have the talent to challenge for a starting spot and add depth to a weight class that has lacked it in the past few seasons.
133 – As the depth chart stands, 133 belongs solely to Dennis Gustafson. After the departures of Kevin Norstrem and Brandon Olsen, Dennis is the last man standing at this weight. Even if Olsen returns, Gustafson will still remain the VT starter. Expect one or more of the 125 lb wrestlers who add a few of the freshman 15 to join him and create depth in the lineup.
It remains to be seen what form Gustafson will return to. Throughout his true freshman season, he was a bulldog at 133, sticking like glue in the top position and fearlessly attacking legs. During his 141 lb redshirt experience, he seemed to lack some of those characteristics before his knee injury. The return to 133 left me very hopeful that he would return to his original form, but he seemed to lack trust in his surgically repaired knee. For Dennis, the battle this offseason will be mental, as he learns to trust the knee, particularly in positions where it is torqued outward.
141 – Last season, Solomon Chishko turned in a spartan-like performance, managing a nasty weight cut all year long, to give the Hokies a shot at their best finish ever. I expect him to take a reprieve this year and step into a more comfortable role at 149 lbs. That opens a hole at 141 lbs that will either be filled by a relative unknown in Brendan Ryan, or one of two newcomers in Brent Moore or Jarrett Degen.
Reports from the room in Blacksburg have been pleasantly positive when discussing young Mr. Ryan. I have heard that Mike Zadick in particular is very high on Ryan’s potential, believing him to be a future contributor. This development is good for the Hokies, should they wish to redshirt the two newcomers.
The new faces of course are Degen and Moore, both top 100 recruits in their own right. They occupy opposite ends of the height spectrum, with Moore built like a Sherman tank, and Degen more like a willow tree. This has me very excited as the two grow together in Blacksburg, as each will invariably strengthen the other. For me, Moore is the future of the 141 lb weight class, but he may need a redshirt year to compete at his true potential. He’s technically gifted, coming from the Graham school of wrestling that has most recently given the hokies Nick Brascetta and Zach Neibert, and has skills in the top position uncommon among VT wrestlers. I hope Moore becomes a gym rat, building his frame into that of a true college 141 lb wrestler.
Degen stands in stark contrast. His ridiculous 6’3” frame still somehow managed to make 138 lbs last season. Degen shares the same mold as Kevin Jack of NCSU, with a lanky frame. What is more impressive about Degen is his skill in the top position. You do not want to end up under Degen, full stop. He sticks like glue to his opponent, and uses leverages from his long limbs to break guys under him. I felt he did struggle in the bottom position, but a decent tripod standup can fix that problem (he probably doesn’t get ridden too much in Montana, and the increased level of competition in Blacksburg will help). Degen is also exciting, as his future ceiling could be very, very high, especially as his training partners and coaching improve.
This weight class starter will depend on the weights around it, and the early performance from Moore and Degen. If I was handicapping the race, I expect Degen to get the nod. I just have to think 141 is untenable as Degen spends 4 years on a college campus (he will be a great 149 lber though, i think). Best guess: Dresser and Co. let it ride, while Moore takes a RS year.
149 – As Hokie wrestling continues its ascent nationally, it seems every year a very valuable senior on the team gets pushed for their starting spot. This year will be no exception, as r-Sr. Sal Mastriani looks to be on the short end of the stick after a move up in weight class from Chishko. Sal has been one of the most coachable guys in the room, and adds a new dimension each year. Unfortunately, outside his beautiful Hi Crotch on his feet, Sal sometimes struggles to initiate offense. His confidence is also being rebuilt after another disappointing early finish at ACCs this past season. Mastriani is best when he is the bully, steamrolling guys with forward pressure for seven minutes to break them. He may try to rise to 157 lbs to challenge newcomer Ryan Blees for the starting spot, but he is better at 149 to me. Unfortunately, he looks to be the odd man out, but if the last few seasons have taught Hokie fans anything, quality depth is critical in this sport.
The wrestler forcing this change is one Solomon Chishko. Chishko is a prototype of the future for Virginia Tech recruiting and the program in general. He trusts the coaches and wrestles Virginia Tech’s attacking style on his feet, leading the team in TDs. Once he earns the TD however, he works for turns and points, a change from earlier iterations of this Hokie team, which were mainly takedown and cut approaches. Chishko is also one of the toughest guys you’ll meet, and his grit throughout the NCAA tournament with floating cartilage speaks volumes to his character as a wrestler. The sky’s the limit for Chishko this upcoming season and he will become an anchor for the lightweights.
157 – In contrast, gone is the rock of the 2016 team, Nick Brascetta, and in his place are a bunch of fresh faces. Most notably, Ryan Blees makes his way to Blacksburg VA after spending two years in Stillwater, OK wrestling for the OSU Cowboys. Blees has the pedigree of a champion wrestler, with mixed results in his prior two seasons, but stylistically I think he’s perfect for Kevin Dresser. Full disclosure, I like the Blees move a lot, perhaps more than Will Stewart like Miatas, but I’m definitely an outlier in this opinion. Conventional wisdom says the jury is still out on Mr. Blees, and a fresh start may be just what he needs. Tech fans will fall in love with Blees’ gas tank, and he is known to come from behind to win (that should remind you of his 165 lb counterpart David McFadden last season).
As previously discussed, Sal Mastriani may decide to bulk up to challenge Blees for the starting spot. In similar fashion, Virginia native and greyshirt newcomer BC Laprade has spent the last year eating and lifting everything in sight to transform from a 145 lber to a full fledged 157. Based on BC’s defensive prowess at New Kent HS, Laprade will add quality depth and practice reps as he redshirts. I would also be remiss to ignore Jake Spengler. Spengler has been up and down, with brilliant moments during his true freshman year in surprise service as the starter. At his best, Spengler is a quality D1 starter, but his inconsistency must be remedied.
This may be the most competitive weight class up for grabs, and currently I expect Blees to come out of the heap on top. With Devin Carter and Derek St. John in the room, whomever wins the spot should be well positioned to continue Brascetta’s excellence.
165 – There is a bit of uncertainty about this weight class, as David McFadden underwent knee surgery this offseason to repair a torn ACL. Depending on his recovery and progress, he retains a redshirt year. The coaching staff will have to make a decision to use that redshirt or forgo it. In his place, Tech has three seasoned wrestlers in Mike Ciavarro, Cody Hughes and David Bergida to use until Mcfadden returns.
Bergida is that steady r-Sr., one who builds the program slowly behind the scenes and out of the limelight. Multiple times over the past few seasons, he’s stepped in to spell the starter and has been serviceable for the Hokies. In the same way, noted wrestling video editor Mikey Ciavarro has also at times started for the Hokies, and he continues to develop. Tech can feel comfortable turning to Bergida or Ciavarro in a pinch during the early season.
Conversely, when Cody Hughes committed to the Hokies from Maine, he had that distinct feeling of a diamond in the rough (much the same way Degen has that feeling surrounding him this year). Hughes was an undersized 165 lber pressed into action at 174 early as Zach Epperly required time to heal. A year later, Hughes will likely have a true 165 lb frame to compliment his wrestling skills. Expect Hughes to push for and seize this spot in McFadden’s absence. Should he emerge as a viable option, the decision to redshirt McFadden will become more difficult for the Hokie coaching staff. If Hughes finds early success it becomes much more conceivable to see McFadden take a year to fully heal and prepare for the grind of a college season.
Ultimately though, McFadden remains a talented prodigy for the Hokies. As he developed last season, he moved from a slow starter, requiring furious come-from-behind rallies to earn victories, to a more consistent wrestler, earning key points in Tech’s run to 4th place at NCAAs. He has the special kind of talent to become Tech first 4x All-American (as do Chishko and Epperly), and I hope he gets his best chance to do that when fully healthy. If he is able to rejoin the Hokie lineup next season, all the better, but I do hope he’s at 100%. I expect Hughes or Bergida will hold the starting spot in November until a redshirt decision is made for Dave.
174 – With the uncertainty in the lower half of the lineup, the upper half seems relatively cut and dry. The starters from last season remain as starters next season, and barring injury, it looks like a potential string of four 2017 All-Americans. To begin, Zach Epperly reprises his role at 174 lbs. Epperly remains alive to become Tech’s first 4x All-American, which would be fitting considering his ties (as well as his brother’s ties) to Tech. The national landscape of 174 may shift (particularly if both PSU’s Bo Nickal and tOSU’s Myles Martin make moves out of the 174 lb weight class) and Epperly has always had the talent to reach the elevated stage in March.
Last season we saw Epperly struggle with injuries and subsequent weight fluctuation, forcing him out of the lineup for considerable stretches of the season. In 2017, the Hokies can hope for an anchor, particularly if he carries his bonus point streak into the new season from the NCAA tourney. Beyond Epperly, roster depth remains thin. Hughes bulked to 174 to fill in last year, as did academic standout freshman Brooks Wilding. I expect Hughes to make a push for the 165 lb starting spot, and therefore think Wilding will take sole possession of the backup role.
184 – Zack Zavatsky had a disappointing finish to an otherwise stellar freshman season. His ACC championship was a bright spot on a rough day for the Hokies, and he fell just short of All-American status in the round of 12 at MSG. He maintains a steady hold on the starting position, so expect a season filled with ankle picks at this weight class.
To support Zavatsky, Tech welcomes VA talent TJ Allen. TJ comes from a wrestling pedigree, with his older brother Corbin wrestling at UVA currently. Allen’s future weight class remains up in the air, as he wrestled anywhere from 170-195 in HS. I think the coaching staff sees him as quality depth for 184 and will counsel him to end up there. Allen has a strong Greco background, and should be a nice addition to the room in Blacksburg. Barring injury however, expect a redshirt year from Allen, unless he is needed to replace Zavatsky.
197 – For those of you new to the program, Jared Haught is the greatest thing since sliced bread (I might be a little biased because he’s my favorite current Tech wrestler). Haught has shown incremental improvement every season in Blacksburg. In his redshirt season, it seemed very debatable if he would even take the starting job upon Chris Penny’s graduation, as David Reck appeared to be neck and neck with him. Fast forward to this offseason, and Haught is a darkhorse 197 finalist with the attrition at the 197 lb weight class. Haught’s put together like Hercules, with a work ethic to match his physique. I expect him to continue to make incremental improvements, especially in his defense of upper body attacks that he fell victim to at NCAAs.
Beyond Haught, Dylan Cook was a serviceable backup, though he currently presents quite a dropoff in talent. Cook will keep matches close, but Tech loses some of the raw firepower Haught possesses. Additionally, part of the offseason recruiting chatter has focused on Virginia recruit Cody Amos. With the lack of a weight class between 197 and 285 lbs, Amos find himself in no man’s land, as he would best fit a weight class between 220-235 lbs. His options are either a massive cut to 197, a la Chris Penny, or a bulk to a weight which can stand against the giants at HWT. Walz chose this option and reports seem to indicate Amos’ frame is simply too large to maintain 197 lbs. Still, if through some magic he comes in under 200 lbs, Amos becomes a very high quality backup at 197 from day one while he redshirts.
HWT – Lastly, there is little to discuss regarding VT’s starting heavyweight. Ty Walz remains the core of the program. Walz is everything you want in a leader, driven, hardworking, charismatic and personable. He’s now debatably Tech’s best pound for pound wrestler, after leaving high school overshadowed by more hyped St. Ed’s HS prospects (Michigan’s Dominic Abounader and OSU’s Dean Heil). Walz’s 2016 result was another positive step forward in what may have been the deepest HWT field ever (likely 4+ future Olympians). Walz went toe to toe with tOSU’s Kyle Snyder, coming from behind down 3-1 to tie the score before ultimately losing to the World Champion. Depending on Snyder’s decision to wrestle collegiately in 2017, Walz may be the favorite to with the National Championship at HWT. Walz won’t shy away from this designation, carrying the pressure with calm self-assurance.
Beyond Walz, the HWT landscape is vastly changed. Gone is Tarzan doppelganger Dan Garwood and hometown favorite Brandon Taylor. Those training partners supported Walz’ climb to new heights, and the Hokies trade experience for a huge haul of potential talent. Three freshmen wrestlers, Andrew Dunn, Cody Amos and Anthony Helm join Tech, and will spend their redshirt year testing each other.
Andrew Dunn spent the 2016 season greyshirting locally in the NRV. He trained through the Southeast RTC, with positive results at open tourneys before finishing his season with shoulder surgery. Dunn was a top 20 recruit, and has the wrestling talent and technique to earn All-American honors as a freshman once Walz graduates. He will be well adjusted to a collegiate S&C program, as well as the size and dexterity required at the collegiate level and looks to be the future at HWT. Cody Amos is a Virginia wrestler and latecomer to the Hokies recruiting class. Though many experts consider Amos a tweener, he is a brilliant technician and Tech has shown a real ability to develop undersized HWTs. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Anthony Helm, another Virginia wrestler. Helm will also attempt to walk-on to the VT football squad, indicative of his athleticism. He adds a dimension that his hard to simulate: size. Expect all three freshmen to take redshirts provided Walz remains healthy.
The 2016-2017 outlook is very positive for the Hokies. Following the program best 4th place finish, Tech reloads and reinforces the lineup to look just as formidable as last season. The Hokies look very strong at the upper weight classes, but will need to monitor depth and development at the lower weights. It looks to be an exciting upcoming season on the mats in Blacksburg!