Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
It was an interesting season for Virginia Tech wrestling. The highs exceeded expectations while the lows fell short of the standard. Emotions were on a roller coaster throughout the three-and-a-half month season, and due to unforeseen circumstances the year ended on a down note.
There were a number of changes to this year’s team that caused some turbulence at times, but there were also constants that held steady and helped right the ship when something went wrong. Based on the past decade and the amount of success that the Hokies have seen on the mat, it’s easy to look on the surface and think that this year was a disappointment or a down season for the team, but there are a whole lot of factors that one must consider when looking back on the 2019-20 season.
Offseason Changes = Uncertain Expectations
The Hokies lost a number of key contributors from last year’s team.
Mekhi Lewis, the program’s first-ever NCAA Champion, took an Olympic redshirt with hopes of making the 2020 team and competing in Tokyo. Two-time All-American Zack Zavatsky graduated, along with some of last year’s standout transfers in Tom Sleigh and Billy Miller. Korbin Myers, another key transfer to the 2018-19 squad, sat out all this year with an injury, taking yet another veteran out of the lineup.
Despite all these losses, there were some gains. Three-time All-American David McFadden was able to move down to the 165-pound weight class, where he wrestled for the first two years of his career and has seen most of his success. 2018 ACC Freshman of the Year Hunter Bolen made his way back into the lineup after redshirting last season, replacing Zavatsky at 184 pounds. The Hokies also brought in the No. 5 recruiting class in the country, a group that featured Bryce Andonian, who had a breakout year this season.
With all these moves over the offseason, the expectations weren’t too high for Tech. After finishing outside the top 10 at the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2012, the team started the 2019-20 campaign ranked 16th in the country. No one was quite sure how good this team was going to be.
Early Season Successes
That changed when the Hokies won back-to-back-to-back duals over top-25 opponents. Tech opened the season with a 29-10 rout of No. 9 Missouri before defeating No. 21 Northwestern a week later.
The Hokies looked strong in their debut. No. 17 B.C. LaPrade upset No. 10 Jarrett Jacques 3-1 in an overtime victory while McFadden won a major decision in his first outing of the year. They closed out the dual with Mitch Moore doing what he does best, pinning his opponent in the first period. Tech started the season with a bang by upsetting a top-10 team, and they were just getting started.
The Northwestern dual featured another win by fall by Mitch Moore and McFadden and Bolen each picked up major decisions as Tech defeated the Wildcats 21-18.
Then came perhaps the second-biggest upset of this college wrestling season. Tech went into Ohio State’s brand-new Covelli Center and knocked off the No. 3 Buckeyes in a 21-15 victory. This time it was the other Moore brother making the headline, as Brent upset No. 8 Sammy Sasso with a first-period fall to give Tech the bonus points it needed to walk away with a big win.
A team which wasn’t expected to make headlines this season did just that, and all of a sudden everything changed. The Hokies were touted as one of, if not the best ,dual team in the country, able to go toe-to-toe with any team in Division I wrestling.
They were on a roll that, along the way, saw a strong showing at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, another win over a ranked opponent, and the team jump to No. 3 in the rankings. Additionally, David McFadden wrestled at the Midlands Championships in late December and made it to the finals, beating Wisconsin’s Evan Wick along the way. Things were looking real bright for a team that not many people knew what to expect from.
Then the trouble started.
Tech hosted No. 10 North Carolina in its first ACC dual of the season. The match was the first to ever be featured on the new ACC Network. A Friday night primetime top-10 matchup. It doesn’t get much better than that in ACC wrestling.
But a great opportunity to showcase the program fell flat as Tech was upset 23-10 by the Tar Heels.
McFadden suffered a tech fall against No. 17 Kennedy Monday while ranked wrestlers Mitch Moore and B.C. LaPrade also dropped their matches. The loss was the first of the season for the Hokies and was a bit of a wake up call that this conference is not as easy as it once was. The other programs have been building and getting better each year, and now they were finally ready to challenge Tech in a year when the Hokies weren’t at their strongest.
The team was able to rebound with dominant victories over Virginia and Old Dominion the following weekend and returned home for Senior Night against Duke on Feb. 8. McFadden sat out to rest for NC State, but LaPrade and fellow senior Cody Hughes each won their matches as Tech moved to 2-1 in ACC competition.
The struggles returned in the final two meets of the regular season, though.
Facing N.C. State on the road is no small task, especially with the season the Wolfpack had. State was ranked No. 3 while Tech came into the dual at No. 7. The Hokies kept it close thanks to a couple of pins from Andonian and Stanley Smeltzer, but ultimately dropped the match 21-18, all but guaranteeing the Hokies would not claim a share of the ACC dual meet title.
The season ended the next Saturday with an 18-13 loss to Pitt that saw Hunter Bolen drop just his second match of the season.
Tech finished the regular season with an 11-3 record, but it’s the 2-3 in ACC duals that’s the troubling part. A team that has had a grip on the conference and won three-straight dual championships from 2015-2017 was all of a sudden facing the reality that it is no longer one of the top two teams in its league.
The ACC Tournament provided some encouragement, as Hunter Bolen won his first ACC Championship and defeated Trent Hidlay for the second time this season. Andonian made the finals in his first attempt, ultimately losing to one-seed Austin O’Connor, but showing that he’s got a bright future in Blacksburg.
The Hokies finished fifth in the tournament, 8.5 points behind Virginia and far ahead of sixth-place Duke. The last time the team finished that far down the standings at an ACC Tournament was in 2007. The Hokies finished in the top three every year from 2010-2019.
So again, some good, some bad with this team. One individual conference champion, three finalists, and nine NCAA qualifiers, but a fifth-place finish. In a season where the expectations were unknown, you have to take the positives where you can.
What Could Have Been
After wrapping up the ACC Tournament, the Hokies were turning their attention to the NCAA Championships scheduled for March 19-21 in Minneapolis. Bolen’s impressive season led to him being rewarded with the No. 2 seed in the tournament, while McFadden earned the 7-seed at 165 pounds.
Tech was set to send nine wrestlers to the tournament for the third-straight year. They had finished in the top 11 at the national championships every year since 2012 and were looking to keep that streak going this year.
Of course, as we all know by now, the world has grinded to a halt due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships, ending the hopes of hundreds of athletes, including those from Virginia Tech.
No one will ever know whether Hunter Bolen could have brought Tech its second individual national championship this March. Or if David McFadden would have become the program’s first four-time All-American.
No one can say how Joey Prata, Collin Gerardi, Bryce Andonian, Cody Hughes and John Borst would have fared in their first NCAA Championships experience. Those results are something that Hokies fans will have to live without, and unfortunately, the wrestlers will not get the chance to prove themselves on the national stage this year.
One can only hope that the NCAA will work something out to allow the senior athletes to compete another year. The organization has already agreed to grant athletes in spring sports another year of eligibility, so only time will tell if they can do the same for winter athletes who are forced to miss their final championships experience.
While we won’t know how well Tech would have done at NCAAs this season, what we do know is that the program will only get better in the years to come. There were a lot of factors that led to the results of this season, both negatives and positives. Looking ahead, there seem to be more positives on the way to Blacksburg.