Virginia Tech wrestling has become a heralded program over the past few years, finishing in the top ten at the NCAA Championships in each of the past five seasons. Despite losing three All-Americans from last year’s team to graduation, Virginia Tech is still ranked No. 10 in the nation.
— NCAA Wrestling (@ncaawrestling) December 20, 2017
Last weekend, the Hokies traveled to face Princeton University in a match held at Madison Square Garden. Virginia Tech defeated Princeton 26-12 in the 2017 Grapple at the Garden, but the bigger story lay beyond the result of the match. It was the first time that the Hokies returned to New York City and Madison Square Garden since they finished fourth in the 2016 NCAA Championships.
“It [the match] was in a theater at Madison Square Garden, which isn’t quite the same as being in the Garden itself,” head coach Tony Robie said. “We competed there two years ago at the NCAA Championships when we took fourth. A few of the guys who were with us this weekend were a part of that team. It was pretty cool for those guys to get back up there. Anytime you can go to New York City and be in that atmosphere is a good experience for our student athletes. To go to Madison Square Garden makes it even cooler. It’s an incredible venue and someplace you need to get to at some point.”
For Robie, who was an assistant coach at the time of Virginia Tech wrestling’s run in 2016, it was also a time of reflection to think back on that experience from two years ago. There were many moments that stood out, but Robie distinctly remembered the resilience that the Hokies exhibited.
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“That tournament didn’t start out great for us,”Robie said. “Thursday was not a good day. I remember waking up Friday and just having a really good feeling. I think we were out of the top 10 Friday morning when the day started. We got off on a roll Friday morning and it carried over to Friday night. It just felt like we couldn’t lose Friday night. That was a really important round of the NCAA Championships. That was a round where you’re scoring a lot of points, guys advancing into the placing rounds, becoming All-Americans. All the guys wrestling back and scoring bonus points. We caught fire and it was contagious. It was almost one of those deals where we thought we couldn’t do anything wrong. We couldn’t lose that night.”
One of the wrestlers who was a part of that fourth place team was redshirt sophomore David McFadden. In his true freshman year, McFadden became an All-American at the NCAA Championships in Madison Square Garden. In his return to New York City, McFadden defeated Princeton’s Jonathan Schleifer by technical fall, 20-5. The New Jersey native is still undefeated on the year with a 17-0 mark.
“He’s wrestled really well, but we expected that from David,” Robie said. “He’s had a great summer of training. He’s done a really nice job throughout the course of the fall. He’s really benefited a lot from the new coaches, Coach Frayer and Coach Molinaro. David’s a guy whose wrestling IQ is really high. He picks things up from other people really quickly. To be where he’s at, it’s not a huge surprise to me. I’ve got big expectations for him at the end of the year. I think he does as well. We have a lot bigger fish to fry at 165 pounds. David McFadden understands that. The guys who are ahead of him are pretty big guys to knock off. He’s got a guy named Isaiah Martinez [Illinois] who is a two-time champ, three-time finalist. A guy named Vincenzo Joseph [Penn State] who was a freshman National Champion. Those are the guys that David has to be shooting for. He has to be doing everything right to accomplish that.”
Another aspect to monitor going forward for Virginia Tech wrestling is how quickly the less experienced wrestlers mature and develop. In the match against Princeton, Robie’s lineup included five redshirt or true freshmen, including Kyle Norstrem, Brent Moore, Brendan Grammes, Hunter Bolen, and Andrew Dunn. Dunn has made the most noise of the freshmen, and is currently ranked No. 17 in the 285 weight class.
“You can’t rush it,” Robie said. “We can’t use that [inexperience] as an excuse. We have some young guys who need to improve quickly. I feel really good about a few of our young guys and the way that they’ve performed up until this point. I think they’ve gained a lot of confidence and I think they’ve really upped their stock in the landscape of NCAA Division I wrestling. It’s a process of us getting those young guys to the point where we can really rely on them every time they step on the mat, and know that we’re going to get a consistent effort from them. We’ve had good moments from all of them at points during the season, but our job as coaches is to see that consistently, so we know what to expect.”
While it stung at the moment, the Hokies’ loss earlier in the season to Missouri may have been the moment that this team needed. It was Virginia Tech’s first loss in the Moss Arts Center since it opened it 2013, but more than anything it showed the team that there was work to be done.
“Anytime you lose you have to use that as a motivator,” Robie said. “I think it was a good opportunity for us to evaluate each of our guys individually against a quality opponent. Missouri’s got a heck of a team. They’re ranked fourth in the country. They have a number of All-Americans who were returning in their lineup. They have a number of highly ranked guys. We got exposed in some areas, and as a coaching staff it was a good opportunity to see where we needed to improve. I hope as much as anything that it helped motivate some of our guys. Jared Haught lost a match where he was winning pretty big then got pinned. Something like that can be a blessing in disguise for you down the road if you use it the right way. I know Jared will use it the right way. Hopefully some other guys are using it the right way.”
The mark of a good wrestling program isn’t seen at the beginning of the season. Instead, the best teams are clicking in March at the conference and national tournaments. Going forward, Robie expects the Hokies to take it up a notch and make their mark.
“Our goal as a program is always to win the ACC Championships,” Robie said. “They’re capable of doing that. At the same time, we don’t have a lot of margin for error. We have to continue to improve, we have to stay healthy and we have to make sure that we’re wrestling our best at the right time of year. Once we get to the National Championships, I think we have a team that can have multiple All-Americans. I think we can have multiple guys in the finals. We can have multiple guys win NCAA Championships for us. That’s where we’re at right now as a program. That’s the next step for us. We have to start producing individual National Champions. That’s a big goal for me and for this program this year is to have some guys on the top of the podium at the end of the NCAA Tournament.”
Virginia Tech returns to action this Friday night when they face West Virginia at Cassell Coliseum at 7 p.m. Admission is free, and the first 150 fans will get free Virginia Tech Wrestling beanies free.