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Virginia Tech is setting its NCAA sights higher after winning its first ACC wrestling championship.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Virginia Tech wrestler Jarrod Garnett (right) spars with Hokies assistant coach Eric Morrill during practice on Monday. Garnett (125 pounds) is one of four Hokies seniors who will be completing their careers this week at the NCAA Wrestling Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
BLACKSBURG — Having finally gotten rid of a monkey — or was it a gorilla? — the Virginia Tech wrestling team is hoping to end its season on an even brighter note.
The Hokies claimed their first ACC championship two weekends ago, giving them momentum and confidence for this week’s NCAA championships.
“That was the monkey off our back. That was the big monkey, and it got bigger and bigger every year because we felt like we were the … best team in the conference,” Tech coach Kevin Dresser said of winning the ACC team crown. “Toughness prevailed in that situation, and that’s what it’s going to take this week.”
A school-record 10 Hokies — one in every weight class — earned bids to the NCAA championships, which will be held Thursday through Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa.
“Having a good ACC tournament and winning that actually does springboard us into nationals,” heavyweight David Marone said. “The gorilla’s off your back. You’re more relaxed.”
A top-eight finish in a weight class Saturday earns a wrestler a trip to the podium as an All-American. Two Hokies earned that honor last year. Tech was 11th in the team standings last year, its best finish.
“This year we want to not even just crack the top 10, we want to blow past the top 10 and try to get in the top five,” said Jarrod Garnett, whose team is ranked 10th nationally by InterMat.
This week will mark the end of the careers of fifth-year seniors Garnett (125 pounds), Jesse Dong (157) and Pete Yates (165) and sixth-year senior Marone. They have combined for nine ACC individual titles, including four this year, and hold four of the top 11 spots on the school’s career wins list.
But Yates is the only one of the foursome who has been an All-American, having finished fifth last year.
“It’s going to be really special to go out as ACC champions, team champions and hopefully NCAA All-Americans all together,” Garnett said. “That’s what’s driving me at this point, is to leave Iowa happy and not bitter like I have the past three years.”
Tech topped the ACC regular-season standings with a 5-0 mark this year. It was the fifth straight year Tech was first, either alone or in a tie.
But the past four years, the disappointed Hokies left the ACC championships with a second- or third-place finish. This time, the Hokies took home the team title in the March 9 event at Maryland’s Comcast Center.
“It’s always kind of eluded us. This was huge. It was awesome,” Yates said. “In the past, we were all worried about ourselves. And this year we really came together as a team.
“The team now is so much different than it was when I was a freshman. Everybody in the room now, not just all 10 guys but all 30 guys, everybody is on the same page. Everybody is working hard.”
Tech trailed Virginia by 10 points entering the finals. UVa had eight wrestlers in the finals to Tech’s six, but the Hokies still finished with the most points. Five Hokies won titles, with all 10 placing high enough in the tournament to earn points.
“It was probably one of the most cherished moments so far I’ve had here,” Garnett, who was named the most outstanding wrestler of the tournament, said of the team championship. “Coming so close those four prior years … when we were supposed to win it, it really leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.”
With Tech up by just one point, Marone beat UVa heavyweight Derek Pagaianopoulos 8-0 to clinch the team crown. The Hokies finished with five more points than runner-up UVa.
Last season, Marone suffered a torn ACL in November 2011. He was a fifth-year senior, with graduation and a wedding on the horizon, so he figured his career was over.
But Dresser took him to last year’s NCAA championships in St. Louis, and Marone left inspired. The NCAA granted him an extra year of eligibility and he returned this season as a sixth-year senior — and as a graduate student and husband.
So to be the one to clinch the ACC championship was amazing, said Marone.
“It just made it all worth it,” Marone said.
Dong’s season also was cut short by injury last year, but the team has enjoyed good health this season.
Only four Hokies are seeded among the top eight in their weight class for the NCAAs — Yates (third), Garnett (fifth), Dong (seventh) and eighth-seeded Nick Brascetta, the ACC champ at 149 pounds.
Devin Carter, a Christiansburg High School graduate who earned All-America honors last year, is redshirting this season.
In past years, the Hokies would enter the NCAA championships hoping to redeem themselves after not winning the ACC team crown.
Redemption is not required this year. But the Hokies are just as motivated.
“How you finish at the NCAAs is what you train for all year long,” Yates said.
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