Across the board, Virginia Tech athletics have excelled in the 2016-2017 season. One of those teams is the Hokies wrestling squad, which is currently ranked fifth in the nation near the midway point of the season.
Coming off a hard-earned victory over No. 15 Oklahoma to win the Virginia Duals, Virginia Tech plans to ride the momentum with two home ACC matches upcoming: Pittsburgh on January 20 and Virginia on January 22.
“I’ve seen some progression,” said head coach Kevin Dresser. “Being an individual sport, I’ve seen a lot more weights progress than go the other way, and that’s what you want right now. With ten guys out there, there’s always going to be that one guy who didn’t get the performance he wanted. It’s hard to throw a perfect 10. That’s what we saw at the Virginia Duals. A lot more guys going forward than going back.”
One of those guys who has seen steady progression throughout the year is Jared Haught, the redshirt-junior in the 197 weight class.
“Jared is obviously a really strong kid,” Dresser said. “Wrestling is really important to Jared. My coaching staff has done a really good job of getting Jared out of his shell so to speak. He’s a guy that sometimes we don’t see the same guy out there on the mat on match night that we do in practices. He’s a little tentative sometimes, a little conservative, so with Jared I now see a guy who is less conservative. He’s really ready to go and throw it out there more.”
Haught is a part of the heralded backstretch for the Hokies which features the quartet of Zach Epperly (174, No. 2), Zach Zavatsky (184, No. 4), Haught (197, No. 3), and Ty Walz (HWT, No. 3). With these four Hokies all holding a top four ranking within their individual weight class, they have come to epitomize the toughness associated with the program.
Haught’s emergence last year as an All-American and his continued improvement this year can be drawn from Dresser’s own wrestling days at the University of Iowa.
“Freshman year he [Dresser] helped steer me in the right direction,” said Haught. “I still didn’t have a lot of the tools. My redshirt-freshman year I started picking up a little bit, had some ups and downs, but coach made a point that whenever he wrestled in college, he didn’t start for three years. He then got fourth place and then a National Championship.”
At the Virginia Duals, senior Joey Dance (125, No. 2) picked up 100th career victory. The accomplishment has only been achieved 10 times in Virginia Tech history, with the most recent being Devin Carter (2010-2015).
“Joey’s had a great career,” Dresser said. “It’s been a little bit of a rollercoaster like a lot of athletes’ careers. We just need to finish at the top of the amusement park at the end of the year. I see him keeping the roller coaster up a lot higher right now. 100 wins doesn’t mean much if you don’t have a good finale in our sport. It’s kind of like having a great basketball season where you win 28 games and you’re the second seed at the NCAA Tournament, and you get beat by a mid-major first round. It doesn’t leave a good feeling.”
Dresser preaches a system which is predicated on being aggressive, attacking, and going after bonus points and major decisions. In the matches where the Hokies have struggled, a lack of aggressiveness has been the primary problem. Dresser pointed to that fact for the Hokies lone blemish of the year on the road at Missouri.
“You have to remind them sometimes to trust their training,” explained Dresser. “We work awful hard in here to stand around and not get it going. I don’t think we got it going in some of those weights. We’ve had instances since Missouri where we’ve had individuals just stand around on the mat here or there. That’s not our style and that’s not our product. We have to get that out of our system.”
Now as the season heats up and heads towards the home stretch, the Hokies intend to lock in their focus and take their game to another level. A potential x-factor for Virginia Tech is the impact of assistant coach Mike Zadick. Anyone who has been to a Hokies match can see the intensity of Zadick as he’s jumping up and down on the sideline, yelling out commands to the wrestlers.
“I have three great assistant coaches in Robie, Zadick and St. John,” Dresser said. “Mike [Zadick] brings a lot of passion. The screaming and the yelling, deep down he really loves every kid out there in maroon and orange. As hard as he is and as intense as he is, his love for them is just as strong. What makes him so impressive is that he genuinely cares. They know that if he gets on them then he means business. At the end of the day they also know that he cares about them.”
In fact, Haught pointed to Zadick as the influence who has been reaching out to him and giving him critical pointers in his training.
“He’s [Zadick] just a great guy,” said Haught. “He just comes to talk to you all the time, so I feel like we have a great relationship. Whenever he’s yelling at you, you’re really paying attention to what he says on the side. He’s one of the guys who has really been helping me out a lot lately. Whenever I hear him telling me to do something, I try to focus in on it if I can and do what he says because I know he’s not going to steer me in the wrong direction.”
Anytime the Hokies wrestling squad is talked about, the same storyline comes up: can this team win Virginia Tech its first National Championship in school history? After finishing fourth at Nationals in the 2015-2016 campaign, many have pointed to this year being the year that the Hokies get an individual or team championship. It’s on everyone’s mind, and even Haught admits that it’s a thought that has entered his mind.
“Individually, whenever I was younger it was to be an All-American and I’ve reached that,” Haught said. “Definitely ever since Nationals last year, it’s now to be a National Champion. That’s not only what I want individually, but also as a team. I know that if everything falls into place, and all the guys do what we’re capable of, then it’s realistic.”
That being said, Dresser stresses to his team to stay focused in the moment and the success will come in time.
“I don’t think we focus on the end product at all,” explained Dresser. “I think if we do a good job all year long and we progress with consistency, then that consistency will carry over. Progress is the big word in this program. As you progress you get consistency, so we have to have that consistency we’ve had the last couple years at the end of the year. It’s going to take a tall order to knock off a Zach Epperly or a Ty Walz at the end of the year because they’ve had such great consistency this year.
“I don’t have that conversation with our guys. I know a lot of people have that conversation with me. Whether that’s pressure or not pressure. If someone’s putting pressure on me then they think I’m in the game, so I take it as a compliment. I don’t take it as pressure. I want to win a National Championship, I don’t care if it’s the first, second, or third. We’re here to win National Championships. Individually, we have guys who want to win National Championships, but they know the only way they can do that is if there’s consistency. You don’t just show up at the NCAA Basketball Tournament or the NCAA Wrestling Tournament and just have a hot weekend and win the tournament. There’s got to be some evidence that you’re in the game. I think we’ve proven at Virginia Tech that there’s evidence we’re in the championship talk.”
The evidence of the Hokies being a National Championship caliber team is undoubtedly there, now it’s just time to see if the results will follow.