For the second straight year, Virginia Tech has nine wrestlers competing in the NCAA Wrestling Championships. This marks the first time the program has ever taken that many athletes to the national tournament in back-to-back years.
While national powerhouses such as Penn State and Oklahoma State are expected to run away with the team title, Tech’s nine wrestlers give the Hokies a shot at staying in the mix. Tech has finished in the top 10 at the NCAA tournament in the past six seasons, and hopes to continue that streak at this year’s event in Pittsburgh.
Of the Hokies’ nine wrestlers, four of them have earned top 10 seeds. Zack Zavatsky leads the pack, coming in at No. 3 in the 184-pound weight class. David McFadden is the six-seed at 174 while freshman Mekhi Lewis is the eight-seed in the 165 weight class. Redshirt senior Tom Sleigh is seeded tenth at 197.
Being seeded third, Zavatsky possibly represents the Hokies’ best shot at an individual national championship this season. The redshirt senior returns to his home state of Pennsylvania, roughly 40 miles from his hometown of Latrobe, for this weekend’s competition.
Zavatsky has gone 24-3 in his senior season, losing twice to Drew Foster in the Cliff Keen Invitational and once to Max Dean in a dual meet against Cornell. Besides those losses, he has put together a season to be proud of. He’s won 12 bonus point victories this year, including four by technical fall and two by fall. He’s beaten multiple ranked opponents and finished the season ranked No. 3 by Intermat.
The first roadblock on his way to a championship? The man who’s beaten him twice this season.
Foster is the six-seed at 184, which means he could face Zavatsky in the quarterfinals. Zavatsky would have to put on his best performance to avenge his regular season losses and keep advancing in the championship bracket. If he’s able to knock out Foster, he’ll likely face Shakur Rasheed of Penn State in the semifinals. Rasheed has put together an undefeated senior season, going 18-0 to this point.
If Zavatsky is able to advance to the championship at 184 pounds, one-seed Myles Martin could be waiting for him. Most would see this as an intimidating matchup, but Zavatsky beat Martin two years ago at the Cliff Keen and isn’t worried about having to face him again.
At last year’s tournament, three-seed Jared Haught made the 197 finals for the Hokies. Only time will tell is Zavatsky is able to replicate his former teammate’s success, and potentially bring home a national championship that no Hokie has been able to before.
Of the Hokies’ other top 10 seeds, all of them have tough roads to the championship. Lewis has torn up the 165 weight class in his freshman season and has been rewarded with the eighth seed. But that seeding means that he’s in the top half of the bracket. If Lewis makes it to the quarterfinals, he’ll likely have to face one-seed Alex Marinelli of Iowa. Marinelli has gone 23-0 on the season so far and has been one of the most dominant wrestlers in the country. Lewis should be able to give him a good battle, but it’ll be a tough one for him to win.
Lewis is no stranger to Marinelli. He beat him last summer in the United States World Team Trials to earn a spot at the U23 World Championships. that win came in a freestyle match, but it's still a win over an opponent that he could face this weekend.
Another thing that may give Lewis comfort in facing Marinelli is how the Hokies have fared against him in the past. McFadden pinned Marinelli in the fifth place match of last year’s NCAA Tournament, winning the match in the third period. Perhaps McFadden can give Lewis some tips on how to win that match should the need arise.
However, McFadden will be focused on his own path to the finals. The six-seed in the 174 weight class, McFadden should be able to win his first two matches, but he’ll have a tough test in the quarterfinals. Defending national champion Zahid Valencia is seeded third at 174, which means he could face McFadden in the quarters.
If McFadden is able to make it on to the semis, it’ll only get harder from there. He’d likely face two-seed Daniel Lewis of Missouri in the semifinals and one-seed Mark Hall of Penn State in the finals. Both matches would be challenging as both wrestlers have been extremely dominant this season. McFadden’s first season at the 174 weight class has been impressive, but he has struggled at times. This tournament will show how he’s progressed and if he can compete with the best of the best at the higher weight.
Rounding out the top 10 seeds, Sleigh is participating in his final NCAA Tournament in the 197 weight class.
He’ll face a familiar opponent in Kellan Stout in the first round. Sleigh has beaten Stout twice this season, once in a dual and most recently at the ACC Championships. If he makes it to the next round, he could face another ACC opponent in Jay Aiello. Sleigh has split matches with Aiello this year, losing to him in Las Vegas, but beating him in the Virginia Duals.
The competition would only get tougher as Sleigh advances through the bracket, but the four-time NCAA qualifier has the experience to know what to expect from this tournament, and should be able to make a run and finish the season as an All-American at least.
The rest of the Hokies’ wrestlers - Korbin Myers, Mitch Moore, Ryan Blees, B.C. LaPrade and Billy Miller – are all capable of making some noise in the tournament as well. Myers has been a dominant force in the 133-pound weight class this year, while Moore has picked up some impressive wins in his freshman season. LaPrade and Miller have found themselves ranked in various polls at times this season. Blees is a redshirt senior with plenty of experience under his belt, and he’ll look to go out on a high note by finishing as an All-American for the first time in his career.
It should be noted, that all of this should be taken with a grain of salt. There’s no guarantee that the higher seeds will make it further into the bracket. Upsets can happen at anytime, and it’s very possible that the Hokies will end up facing a lower seed in a quarterfinal or semifinal match.
Take last year for example. Unseeded Kyle Conel of Kent State upset the Nos. 9 and 8 wrestlers before upsetting No. 1 Kollin Moore in the quarterfinals. Unexpected results can happen and likely will happen throughout the tournament.
Wrestling begins at noon on Thursday and will last through Saturday night. The complete schedule of this weekend's events can be found here. Full brackets for the tournament can be found here. Make sure to check back with Tech Lunch Pail for updates throughout the weekend.