Just days away from the start of wrestling season, No. 16 Virginia Tech is preparing for a tough dual meet with No. 9 Missouri. The Hokies will welcome the Tigers to Cassell Coliseum at noon on Saturday. Tech has faced the Tigers each of the last three years and have lost each time. This is the second year in a row that they will open their season with Missouri.
“[Missouri is] a team that has kind of had our number over the last three years,” said head coach Tony Robie. “It’s definitely a big one and a pretty good way to start off the season.”
The Tigers finished sixth at last year’s NCAA Championships, but fell a few spots due to the loss of a few key wrestlers. Daniel Lewis, a four-time All-American, graduated in the spring, and Jayden Eierman is redshirting to represent the United States at the U23 World Championships.
However, Missouri still has many talented wrestlers in their lineup. Eierman is replaced in the 141-pound class by Grant Leeth, who is ranked fifth in the country. Then, at 149 pounds, the Tigers have the second-ranked wrestler in the class, sophomore Brock Mauller.
“I’m anxious to have that opportunity against a very well-coached, quality opponent,” Robie said. “That’s a program that I respect a lot and a coach that I respect a lot, so it will be a good day.”
The Hokies are missing a few key wrestlers from last season as well. Tom Sleigh and Billy Miller were both four-time NCAA qualifiers at the 197 and Heavyweight classes, respectively. Both graduated in the offseason and have to be replaced at the two heaviest classes.
“As much as anything, we’re going to figure out where we are as a team; we have five or six weight classes where we have new faces this year,” Robie said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, and a little bit of youth, which is fine, but to me it’s not an excuse and shouldn’t make a difference in our results.”
Possibly the largest loss for the Hokies this season is last year’s 165-pound National Champion Mekhi Lewis. After his historic run to the title, he has decided to redshirt this season and pursue his dream of wrestling in the Olympics.
Filling in for Lewis at 165 pounds will be last year’s starter at 174 pounds, David McFadden. Ranked fourth in the country in the class, McFadden is a three-time All-American. There are certainly high expectations for the redshirt senior as he enters his final season with the team.
“David is shooting to win an NCAA title, and I think he’s plenty good enough to do that,” Robie said. “For us, that’s where our sights are set, and Dave’s been an All-American three times already, I don’t think just being a four-time All-American is something that he’s going to be super excited about.”
With McFadden moving down a weight class, the Hokies will need someone to step up at 174 pounds. That responsibility looks like it will fall on redshirt-senior Cody Hughes. Hughes is 36-27 as a Hokie, so he has a lot of work to do to fill the shoes of McFadden.
“[Hughes] is a fifth-year senior who has never been able to crack the starting lineup because he’s had some really good guys in front of him,” Robie said. “For him, it’s an opportunity, and I’m excited that he gets this opportunity because I think he’s pretty capable and his work ethic is really good.”
An unexpected loss for Tech is redshirt-senior Korbin Myers, who is currently ranked in the top-ten in the 125-pound weight class. Myers finished third in the ACC Championships last year in the 133-pound class and decided to move down a class for his final season. However, he suffered an injury and had surgery earlier this week. Myers will miss a significant portion of the season.
“Korbin is in the process of trying to figure out how we’re going to proceed,” Robie said. “There is a chance that he could be back this season, but it wouldn’t be until the second semester. We’re in a bit of a wait and see mode.”
With all of this change on the young Hokies’ roster, it is tough to gauge expectations for the season. There is certainly reason for optimism with the team due to the young talent. However, it won’t be quite clear how successful the squad will be until they hit the mat this Saturday.
“Obviously, winning the ACC Championships is our goal every year; there’s no denying that and it’s important,” Robie said. “We need some guys to get better throughout the course of the season to get there, so we’re going to focus on the process of what it takes to accomplish those things right now.”