The ACC Regular Season
With the current ACC wrestling schedule, VT’s home-away balance is skewed 4-1. So some years VT wrestles 4 home ACC duals and some years 4 away ACC duals. This year VT had to hit the road and left Cassell for good on Jan 29th, facing five straight road trips.
The Hokies, ranked #10 at this point, first travelled to #18 UVA, and destroyed the ‘Hoos 31-7. Haught continued to nurse his hamstring, but Tech’s lineup had more than enough firepower to crush the rebuilding Cavaliers.
VT then left on a road trip to PA, stopping first at #17 Pittsburgh before meeting a dangerous Edinboro squad. Pitt’s wrestling program was in disarray and the Hokies capitalized, beating the perennial powerhouse 28-7. McFadden appeared to descend into a midseason slump, losing a split second video review scramble. Haught had however returned to the lineup, strengthening it after the loss of Brascetta and dominating his old foe, Pitt’s Nick Bonaccorsi.
VT then travelled to Edinboro, where McFadden broke out of his slump again in last-second, dramatic fashion, winning 6-4 in sudden victory. The day however belonged to Zack Zavatsky, who edged Edinboro’s 2015 NCAA finalist Vic Avery 3-1 in sudden victory in front of his hometown PA crowd.
Winning an ACC Dual Meet Title
So to catch folks up who had only paid attention to VT’s wrestling team this season, NC State also did a lot of ass kicking this season. They took down traditional powers Minnesota, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa. They were very, very good… but VT was better. Going into the dual, both teams were top 10 nationally (VT #8, NC State #3) with a slew of ranked wrestlers.
NCSU is undergoing renovations to their main facility, forcing this match to be held in an overglorified barn. The atmosphere and limited seating had ACC wrestling fans lining up hours early to guarantee a spot for the clash. AND IT DID NOT DISAPPOINT! The Hokies and the Wolfpack traded blows back and forth. VT took huge upset victories at 133 lbs (by major decision) and 149 lbs, as Gustafson and Mastriani essentially won the dual for VT. NCSU’s stars Kevin Jack, Tommy Gantt, and Nick Gwiazdowski wrestled well, but VT’s strength from 174-197 lbs decided the dual, as the Hokies won 19-14 securing their second consecutive ACC dual title and ensuring a top 3 ranking (or so we thought).
Virginia Tech then closed out a perfect 5-0 ACC dual season with a dismantling of the Duke Blue Devils. Now VT just needed to sit back and wait for a phone call to set up their last dual match of the season.
NWCA National Duals
The NWCA National Duals are a very long and complicated storyline that probably deserves its own article. Here are the Cliffs Notes:
* Kevin Dresser checked with members of the committee before the announcement to get a pulse of where VT might go. All indications were that a VT-Iowa dual made sense and would likely be the result. Dresser had already asked the NWCA how matches would be determined and was told that the coaches committee would make recommendations and would vote on the final matchups.
* Sunday afternoon, alarm bells went off, as suddenly VT was now no longer lined up for Iowa and instead had been shifted to face Michigan.
* The coaches committee maintains that the contract coaches signed stipulates that final coaches poll would determine the matchups. Dresser maintains this was only to be used for the championship matchup.
* Long story short: VT got to face Michigan while the Wolfpack, whom VT beat three days prior, got to go up against Iowa.
Now, after the Cliffs Notes let me interject a few thoughts here. First, exceptions were already made to the “process” the committee eventually followed, as Edinboro was moved to face Ohio State, since that was the only host with a Monday time slot. Similarly, the PAC12 withdrew their team, and to fill their spot Iowa State was drawn in. So the whole process was a mess and everything looked fishy.
In a large revenue sport, a coach might gripe but leave it alone. Wrestling is not a large revenue sport. In a very, very calculated decision, Dresser took to his podcast, Inside Virginia Tech Wrestling, to call a few members of the collegiate wrestling scene on the carpet. Dresser sponsors this podcast and controls it with journalist Jason Bryant, so he deliberately put this message out to the fan base.
Dresser used the word “orange” to imply Iowa cowardice, after the Hawkeyes have refused to entertain VT for the past 6+ years. Dresser called out the president of the NWCA and Iowa coaches (the Brands brothers, Tom and Terry) for influencing the process behind the scenes to avoid a VT-Iowa matchup.
I do know from a reliable source outside the VT program that Iowa did indeed influence the process to avoid Virginia Tech. Why Iowa did this I will leave to the speculation of the reader. But essentially VT went from a very favorable matchup with an undefeated Iowa, to another very competitive match with Michigan.
So Virginia Tech boarded the plane to Michigan in an unexpected homecoming for Virginia Tech Assistant Coach Tony Robie to face his old team, Michigan.
The matchups drove this match, and VT was finally getting healthy while Michigan was struggling to field their full lineup. VT gutted out a victory at 125 after Dance bailed himself out of trouble against Michigan wrestler Conor Youtsey, who had ended Dance’s NCAA tourney the year prior.
Tech traded consecutive weights back and forth with Michigan, until Brascetta gutted out a huge win over Michigan’s top-ten wrestler Brian Murphy. His leadership turned the tide, and after the match, Brascetta confessed to being less than 100% on his torn MCL. Tech took four of five matches at the heavier weights, losing only a very, very controversial 184 lb decision on stalling calls. Haught and Walz shut the door on a Michigan comeback, beating consecutive ranked wrestlers and giving Tech the NWCA dual victory 24-11.
Virginia Tech entered the ACC championship sky high and prepared for a dogfight with NC State. On paper after the preseeding of the brackets, VT was tied with the Wolfpack on potential points. Tech also needed gutsy performances from Mastriani and Gustafson to keep their NCAA tourney hopes alive. Gustafson would need to take at least third place to receive a tourney bid, while Mastriani needed to make the final.
Unfortunately both wrestlers fell short, with Gustafson dropping the third place match and Sal suffering a heartbreaking pin to NCSU wrestler Beau Donahue. Beyond that, Tech placed seven wrestlers into the finals, with McFadden wrestling well above his 5 seed to third place.
The ACC finals were another disappointment, one year removed from the costly ACC tournament collapse in Pittsburgh. Of the seven finalists, Tech won only two ACC championships, at 125 lbs and 184 lbs. The Hokies took crushing defeats to NC State wrestlers at 141 lbs, 157 lbs and HWT, distancing the title from Tech’s reach. Epperly and Haught also took tough losses, and the highs from two weeks prior had evaporated. Still, Tech had qualified eight wrestlers for the NCAA tournament.
The Hokies entered the NCAA tournament with higher expectations than any prior Virginia Tech squad. All eight qualifiers were seeded, and seven of the eight were seeded top-8.
Day one of the tournament was a pretty crushing setback for the Christiansburg boys. Both Dance and Epperly took very unexpected losses, as Epperly bowed out to a very good, unseeded Casey Kent (University of Pennsylvania), and Dance lost to an old foe in David Terao (American University). Both wrestlers seemed, at least in the preseason, to be Tech’s best hope for NCAA champions, but it wasn’t to be.
Tech took further losses at 197 lbs and 165 lbs, but managed to place four wrestlers into the championship quarterfinals. The morning of day two would be a low point for Tech, losing three of four quarterfinal matchups, and missing what seemed to be an opportunity to claim the first NCAA trophy for the program.
From the lows of Friday morning came the highs of Friday night. Tech won five of six All American “Bloodround” matches, and in combination with Walz, smashed the program’s previous record of four All Americans. Tech wrestled to crush their opponents, scoring bonus points across the board and leading to a 30+ team point charge in that session.
In the medal rounds, VT took two third place finishes, a fourth place finish and three sixth place finishes. Their new tournament score of 82 points obliterated the old high water mark of 54 points and placed the Hokies in third place headed to the championship finals Saturday night. Though Ohio State did close and overtake the Hokies, the Hokies secured the fourth-place finish and their first NCAA team trophy.
Tech finished the season at an all-time high for the program, as it prepares to say goodbye to one of its greatest wrestlers ever, Nick Brascetta.
Brascetta had the unfortunate luck to follow Virginia tech wrestling great Devin Carter, else he would likely be the program leader in many historical firsts. His three NCAA All American finishes tie him with Carter, and Brascetta remains the last of the old guard that experienced Virginia Tech wrestling before it reached the current top-ten program heights.
Virginia Tech looks forward to 2017 with nine of its ten starting wrestlers intact, aiming to Raise the Bar next season.
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