Under the bright lights of Quicken Loans Arena, Virginia Tech wrestling stamped a sixth consecutive finish in the top 10 at the NCAA Championships. The Hokies finished eighth in the nation with 47.5 points (click here for the full team results)
Virginia Tech added three more All-Americans (top eight finish) this year. David McFadden placed fifth in the 165 division, Zack Zavatsky finished sixth in the 184 weight class, and Jared Haught nearly brought home Virginia Tech’s first individual National Championship, placing second in the 197 division.
“I think we have to feel good about it,” said Head Coach Tony Robie. “Starting the season, we really didn’t know what to expect. We lost five NCAA All-Americans out of last year’s lineup. To get three All-Americans and have a guy in the finals, win an ACC team title, finish in the top eight…I think it was a pretty successful year considering everything we went through. That being said, when you look back at the NCAA Tournament, even the year we got fourth, you look back and think what could’ve been. You always leave a little bit on the table. I’m a little bit of a perfectionist and can’t help but feel that way. Overall, I feel good about it. I think our guys responded to the new coaching staff very well. I think the culture is fantastic right now. We just have to continue to develop our guys and continue to build this thing.”
This article is sponsored by The Southeast Regional Training Center (SERTC): The SERTC is critical to the success of the Virginia Tech Wrestling program. Our goal is to continue to grow the SERTC and add at least one more athlete/coach this season. In order to do so, we need all Hokies to get on board! Your donation can make a huge difference. Click here to learn more and to donate today!
Haught entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 3 seed and made it to the final by pinning Cornell’s Ben Darmstadt, the tournament’s No. 2 seed. NC State’s Michael Macchiavello, the No. 4 seed, got the best of Haught in the final, taking down the West Virginia native with 11 seconds remaining in the third period to win the bout 3-1.
Despite the loss, Haught remains one of the most decorated wrestlers in Virginia Tech history. He became the fourth wrestler to earn an All-American honor three times, and became the second Hokie to reach the finals at the NCAA Tournament, joining Devin Carter who did so in 2014.
“Jared can hold his head high and walk around feeling good about what he invested in his wrestling career,” Robie said. “That’s what I told him afterward…that it doesn’t always go the way you want it to, but at the end of the ride you want to be able to look back and say ‘Hey, I did everything I possibly could to accomplish my goals.’ He certainly did that. Overall with his career, he really embodies what this program is about.”
Senior Dennis Gustafson also saw his wrestling career come to a close. Gustafson won an ACC Championship in the 133 division. It was a long time coming for Gustafson, after he also won an ACC Title as a freshman. The Woodbridge, Virginia native won one match in the NCAA Tournament this year.
“I don’t think he had the Tournament he was looking for, but for him to win an ACC Championship and help our team win an ACC Championship, he’s got to feel really good about the way he finished his final season at Virginia Tech,” Robie said. “We’re certainly going to miss him. We could always count on Dennis for giving great effort. We talk about giving great effort a lot, and that’s one of the things he contributed probably more than anything else.”
Haught fell just short of an NCAA Championship, but he helped lay a foundation for the Hokies to come. In the meantime, Virginia Tech is still looking for that one breakthrough.
“For us, one of our goals was to have a National Champion,” Robie said. “It’s still one of our goals, who is going to be that first NCAA Champion at Virginia Tech? We have a lot of guys on our team currently that can make that happen. We need to continue to get better and raise expectations for everybody in our program. The ultimate goal in our sport is to win an NCAA Title as an individual. That’s the expectation, that’s the goal, that’s what we sell kids on when we go into their house and recruit them. Those are the kind of guys we’re looking for. Guys who embrace that and are up for that challenge.”
Even with all the success that Virginia Tech has had in the past six seasons. Robie is still hungry for more from his program. He wants to see Virginia Tech placed on the map as a wrestling powerhouse.
“We’re kind of on the outside of those top tier teams – Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa – looking in to a certain degree,” Robie said. “My goal is to break into that group of teams on an annual basis. For me, it’s competing for team trophies every year and putting yourself in position to win a team National Championship. We definitely have some work to do to get to that level.”
Over the past decade, Penn State has been the class of collegiate wrestling. The Nittany Lions have won seven of the past eight team NCAA Championships. Virginia Tech assistant Frank Molinaro wrestled under Cael Sanderson at Penn State and became a National Champion in the 2012 season when he tallied an undefeated 33-0 record. This year, Robie saw the effects of Molinaro’s past rubbing off on some of the Hokies.
“We made some big improvements and advancements in the way we mentally approached wrestling,” Robie said. “Coach Molinaro brought some really good things from Penn State that he learned there and was able to implement that into what we do at Virginia Tech. I think our guys embrace that. I think our guys learn from it. It helped them in a lot of situations. So much of this sport is mental. The physical part, there’s a lot of guys who are at or near the same level. Guys who excel and do it consistently understand the mental part of it. Penn State is setting the standard in our sport, so to be able to take a little bit of what he learned there and implement it into what we’ve done has really helped our team.”
Looking ahead into next year, the Hokies return seven wrestlers who were NCAA qualifiers including All-Americans McFadden and Zavatsky.
“We’re going to go out and recruit really hard and continue to try to bring in the best kids in the country to Virginia Tech,” Robie said. “Make our wrestling room as competitive as possible, and put some pressure on guys for them to improve. When you have that kind of environment, the cream will rise to the top. We want to get the best out of every single guy on our roster.”
We’ll have an interview with Jared Haught and Dennis Gustafson next week to talk with them both about their careers at Virginia Tech.