Virginia Tech wrestling has been one of the top programs in the country for the last few seasons. After sitting in the top ten for most of the season and finishing fourth in the NCAA Tournament, the Hokies are slowly earning the respect of the blueblood programs in wrestling.
“I don’t think there is any question out there we’ve earned respect in the wrestling nation,” said Head Coach Kevin Dresser. “We’ve been in the top ten the last five years, this year we finished the dual meet season ranked third in the nation, and we beat NC State, who was second in the nation. So I think we’ve got the respect, I think a little bit of it is, I think there’s a certain amount of teams out there that are afraid to compete and I think there are certain teams out there where their schedule is just so challenging right now, it’s hard to work us in, and I get that. That’s fair.”
One of the biggest reasons the program has grown is due to the Southeast Regional Training Center based out of Virginia Tech. Dresser runs the program, and says the training center has become increasingly important in college wrestling.
“Basically USA Wrestling branched out about seven or eight years ago and gave anybody that had a wrestling room the opportunity to file the paperwork to be a national training center,” Dresser said. “So we have the National Training Center out in Colorado Springs, and all these regional training centers popped up. I filled out the paperwork and our facility at Virginia Tech is a regional training center.”
“It allows any type of Olympic style, even folkstyle, which is our style, for us to train,” Dresser said. “We can train with high school kids, we can train post-graduate guys, so it just branches out our ability to bring in more quality people to our room. The byproduct of that has become recruiting. If you’ve got Devin Carter and Derek St. John, Ty Walz next year, all these guys at your regional training center still training, and still working out, it’s a good thing for them, but it’s also a great thing for your team because from a recruiting standpoint because an 18-year-old gets excited knowing he can train with Devin Carter. It’s become the lifeblood and if you don’t have a booming training center, a booming RTC, it’s tough to win a national title. Because the good kids, they want to go somewhere where they have an Olympic opportunity, a post-graduate, a postseason, a preseason opportunity, and that’s freestyle wrestling.”
After releasing the team’s schedule on June 29, Dresser noted how difficult it’s been to get teams to listen to Virginia Tech at the national level, as well as convincing teams to come play in Blacksburg.
“I think different coaches at different teams have different reasons for not wanting to wrestle people and wrestle people,” Dresser said. “If you’re in a conference with somebody, they are bound to that, but there’s nothing out there that makes you wrestle anyone past your conference. It’s kind of hit or miss.”
“I think I called every Big Ten team, and didn’t get one yes,” Dresser said. “Just because their Big Ten schedule is tough, and so to pick a non-conference team that’s tough, for whatever reason it didn’t work out. I called just about every one of them, I think I called 80 percent of them up, just to see if we could get a home match with them. There were other teams too. We tried Oklahoma State, we tried some other schools too, it’s just hard to get people to come to Blacksburg now because they know they better have it strapped on.”
Scheduling hasn’t been the biggest issue. Last season, Dresser was frustrated with the way the National Duals were handled. With the Hokies sitting at fifth in the nation, they were hoping to wrestle Iowa, but instead had to wrestle No. 8 Michigan.
Dresser said that the situation hasn’t really been touched since the National Duals occurred in late February, but that he hopes to get some questions answered at the sport’s national convention in August.
“It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out because although I think the event was very successful, and it did spark a lot of interest, some of it probably because of me jumping up and down and lighting my head on fire, but it did create a lot of interest and there were some good things from it, just the process of where they got to where they were was sh—y. I think I can say sh—y. That needs to be discussed. The deal the first year was that every Big Ten team would host. The deal the second year, which was agreed on at the very beginning of the process was now the 10 or 11 Big Ten teams would travel to the top conference champs across the nation. The theory, if they hold their word, was they are coming to us next year.”
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Virginia Tech will wrestle their first four events in the area, taking on Edinboro and VMI at home before wrestling in Roanoke, Va. in the Hokie Open. The fourth event of the season will take place in the Moss Arts Center, which Dresser says is the most unique venue in college wrestling.
“It’s fun, it’s different,” Dresser said. “You’re in a theater, I know the guys love it. I know if you asked our guys their favorite place to wrestle, it’s Moss. The community has come behind it, and it’s kind of getting to be the social thing to do. I think it’s helped our fan base. Let’s face it, wrestlers are entertainers. Virginia Tech football players are entertainers. We’re entertainers and anything we can do to entertain better is a good thing in my book.”
“It’s the most unique and different venue,” Dresser said. “You’ve got 1,200 people breathing right on top of you, you can hear a pin drop, if you clap your hands it reverberates through the whole facility.”
After those first four matches, Virginia Tech won’t wrestle at home again until January 20 against Pittsburgh.
Looking at the roster, Dresser thinks his squad has a chance to make even more noise than last season.
“We have to progress,” Dresser said. “Spoken like a true coach, but we have to improve, our guys have to understand the value of practice and not just coming to practice and punching the clock. They’re coming to practice and making strides and not punching the clock. I remind them of that all the time. There’s guys that are clock punchers and there’s guys that come in and two hours later they felt like they got better.”
The Hokies will be a mix of young and experienced talent and are only losing one starter (Nick Brascetta) from last season.
“We want to stay in the top five, we want to be a top-five team,” Dresser said. “That’s a hard thing to do year in and year out, but if we can do that we’ve arrived. Then, if we get a couple breaks here and there we can contend for a national title. Get a few breaks, get a few guys to progress more who aren’t supposed to progress, like last year, we’re in the same boat. If Joey Dance wrestles to his seed and Zach Zavatsky wrestles to his seed, we get second. That’s how close we were to second this year.”
Even though the Hokies are among the top teams in the country, he says the program needs help in order to compete for a national title year in and year out.
“Our regional training center has to expand,” Dresser said. “We’ve got to be able to bring in more and that takes more money because all the regional training center guys, we have to raise the money to pay. We have to get into the half-million dollar category. We need to be raising about half a million dollars a year like Penn State and Ohio State are doing. That’s what they’re raising, that’s what their paying their regional training center staff.”
Currently, Dresser estimates the Southeast Regional Training Center sits around $250,000 in funds for this year, which is the first time the center has broken the $200,000 mark. The program is on the rise and Dresser sees the team growing in the community.
“I think there’s a lot of excited people, I think our guys in little bitty small Blacksburg, I think they’ve carved a niche and I think there’s a buzz,” Dresser said. “We’ve got a buzz going on right now and we want to keep that buzz going. I think people are talking about wrestling, I think they are reading about wrestling, they’re on message boards, and that was the goal when we started. You get a lot of people involved and you go.”