Virginia Tech has a wrestler competing in the national finals for the second consecutive season. Redshirt freshman Mekhi Lewis will compete for a championship at the 165-pound weight class on Saturday night in Pittsburgh.
The Junior World champion had a tough road to get here. He started his weekend off with standout performances in the first and second rounds, but had to face No. 1 Alex Marinelli in the quarterfinals. He beat the undefeated Iowa wrestler 3-1 thanks to a late-match takedown.
From there, he moved on to face Wisconsin's Evan Wick in the semifinals. Lewis was ahead 3-2 towards the end of the match, but sealed his victory with another late takedown in what many considered another upset victory.
Now, he'll face what could be the biggest challenge of the weekend. Lewis will take on two-time defending national champion Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State in the finals.
Both wrestlers said on Friday that they were looking forward to the bout. Lewis knows that it'll be a tough match, but he likes the competition. For Joseph, he gave credit to Lewis for putting together a stellar season and said he has every right to think he can win the match.
But what do other people think about the matchup?
"It’s going to take a mountain to climb tonight too," teammate David McFadden said about Lewis' finals bout. "He’s got Cenzo. But I believe in him, we all do. And no matter what we’ll still love him."
McFadden has been right there every step of the way with Lewis, so if anyone knows what he can do against the best competition, it's him.
"I’ve seen his growth. I’ve trained with him every day for the past two years," McFadden said. "I knew what he’s capable of. It’s scary when you wrestle him. He’s one of the toughest guys I know. He’s one of my best friends. He’s gritty."
Lewis is a very physical wrestler and a takedown machine. He has plenty of bonus point victories this season, including eight major decisions and three technical falls. He consistently scores takedown after takedown while rarely giving up many points to his opponents.
His opponent is just as tough, though. Joseph came into the tournament with a record of 23-1. He's won 13 matches by fall, two by tech fall and four by major decision. He's been on top of the 165 weight class for two years, and it's going to be hard to bring him down.
But Lewis has faced tough tasks before. Prior to beginning his redshirt freshman season, he won the Junior World Championship last fall. He won it in decisive fashion too, taking out Abubakar Abakarov in a 5-1 decision.
"The guy he beat in the World Finals is like senior level good, in the senior world tournament. So for Mekhi to go out and kind of dismantle that guy, we kind of all knew," McFadden said about knowing what Lewis is capable of.
He'll look to have a similar performance against Joseph when they take the mat in PPG Paints Arena. Lewis got a chance to see part of Joseph's semifinals match, and that gave him an idea of what to expect when he faces the Penn State junior.
"What I took from that match is he went out and he was aggressive," Lewis said. "He knew what he was good at and he knew what he needs to get to to be successful in the match. So basically just taking that and putting it into my wrestling, knowing where I’m good at and where I’m successful at, and just applying it in the match and hopefully being on top."
Regardless of what happens, Lewis has already made history by making the finals. He's the first Virginia Tech freshman to ever wrestle in a national championship match. Head coach Tony Robie is proud of the job he has done in his first year of collegiate competition.
"I’m ecstatic for Mekhi Lewis for where he’s at right now," Robie said. "He has a chance to win a national title, he’s in the finals as a freshman. Just the third finalist we’ve ever had."
The NCAA finals begin at 7 p.m. tonight and will be broadcast on ESPN. The wrestling starts at 285 pounds, then moves to 125 pounds and goes in order from there. Lewis vs. Joseph will be the seventh match of the night.
Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics