Earlier on Saturday afternoon, David McFadden said he wanted to be Virginia Tech’s second national champion, assuming Mekhi Lewis would win a championship this year. Saturday night, that assumption came true.
Lewis won Virginia Tech its first individual national title, defeating Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State in the finals in PPG Paints Arena. His performance, which included upsetting the one, two and four seeds in his weight class, earned him Most Outstanding Wrestler.
Lewis was only seeded eighth at the tournament, but don’t call it an underdog story.
“Everybody other than my teammates, family and coaches, the fans thought I was the underdog,” Lewis said. “I didn’t think I was the underdog. I just thought people didn’t get the chance to see me wrestle at a big stage, like in folkstyle, because they only saw freestyle. And I just felt like I was prepared and ready to win a national title. So I felt equal to everybody I wrestled.”
The family that believed in him was right there all along, cheering wildly as he got closer and closer to winning the match.
In front of a crowd of 18,950, Lewis dominated the two-time defending national champion in a 7-1 decision. Joseph, a Pittsburgh native, had the crowd behind him, but Lewis garnered a few fans of his own by the end of the night.
The match started out with neither wrestler able to score a takedown in the first period. Lewis started the second on top, and managed to get Joseph in a cradle to score four near fall points. Lewis said that he knew what to expect from Joseph in order to get him on his back.
“I just felt – this tournament that’s what I was looking for against all my opponents. The first opponent, I felt it was (Iowa’s Alex) Marinelli, and I know (Vincenzo) Joseph did the same kind of stand-up as him,” Lewis said. “And as soon as I felt that I was getting it locked up and he was trying to fight out of it sort of, I just went with it. It was, like, a natural feeling, just natural.”
Lewis started the third period on bottom, and promptly escaped. Joseph got in on a shot, but the Hokies’ freshman would not go down, shaking his head at Joseph as the two went out of bounds.
“I just shook my head because, like, that’s what was happening this whole tournament, people was getting on my legs deep,” Lewis said. “And I just said no. I just remembered in my mind I was like, I’m just going to keep fighting, fight, work every position. Fight it off.
“So basically that’s where the shake-my-head came from. It wasn’t to insult him or anything, nothing like that.”
Lewis scored another takedown in the third period and rode it out as he earned the decision. The third finalist in the history of Virginia Tech’s program, Lewis became the first national champion for the Hokies.
“It means a lot, because Virginia Tech wrestling has been really good,” Lewis said. “It’s just that we never really had good finals, good end results. So to be the first one is really special. It means a lot to me. Just so happy that I’m a part of the program.”
Additionally, Lewis became the first Hokie to earn Most Outstanding Wrestler of the NCAA Championship honors after taking out three of the top 4 seeds at his weight class on his way to the national title.
Head coach Tony Robie was proud of his wrestler, knowing how much it means to him and to the program overall.
“I think it’s a big deal obviously,” Robie said. “It’s something that we’ve been trying to accomplish for a long time at Virginia Tech and to have Mekhi (Lewis) do it as a freshman, it’s pretty cool to just watch his development over the course of the last two years or however long he’s been on campus and grow to where he is now.”
Robie knew from the moment Lewis stepped foot on Virginia Tech’s campus that he had potential to do great things, and tonight that came to fruition.
“We knew he was special right away,” Robie said. “You put your hands on him one time and you can tell. And then when you get to know him and you know how he approaches things and just the kind of human being that he is.”
It hasn’t always been clear what path Lewis would take this season. Despite only losing two matches in the regular season, there were times when Lewis wasn’t wrestling at his best ability. Thankfully for the Hokies, he kept his head up and worked hard to get to tonight.
“He lost a match early in the year and he’s had moments where he maybe didn’t look unstoppable,” Robie said. “But you know, our belief in him and his belief in himself and his work that he’s put in to get here and the discipline that he has and the coachability that he has. The pride and the competitiveness. It showed up tonight. It’s a byproduct of the way he lives and the person that he is.”
And if anyone thinks tonight was a one-time deal, Tony Robie has some news for them.
“He’s the whole package deal,” he said. “He’s gonna be a problem for people. I’ve been saying that for a long time.”