For more than a decade, Virginia Tech wrestling has slowly been built into a wrestling powerhouse that had earned top 5 finishes in the NCAA Championships. Meanwhile, the Buzz Williams era has seen Virginia Tech men's basketball reach a level of play that seemed unimaginable when Williams was first hired, earning three-straight bids to the NCAA Tournaments.
However, both programs entered last weekend still with something to prove.
For Virginia Tech Wrestling, while their ultimate goal is to win a team national title, the one thing that the Hokies were lacking outside of that was an individual national champion.
The Buzz Williams era of Virginia Tech basketball had seen great success, but not a single NCAA Tournament win despite playing in a pair of 8-9 matchups and having four-straight winning ACC records entering this season's Tournament. However, the larger goal wasn't simply to win a game but with a team that spent most of the season in the top 15 of the rankings, the minimum goal was to make it to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the NCAA Tournament only had 23 teams in 1967.
Entering this weekend, the opportunities were there for both teams to do what neither had done either at all before (have an individual national champion) or do what hadn't been done in such a long time that almost no one even remembers it had been done before (reach the Sweet 16/third round). In one case, Virginia Tech would be the powerhouse name to take off as the 4 seed in pursuit of the Sweet 16 while Mekhi Lewis entered as a major underdog as a freshman and 8 seed at 165 with Zack Zavatsky being seen as the top candidate to end the drought.
Now we've seen Virginia Tech in both of these roles in the past both as the big time program and favorite along with being the underdog and like many of those past times, the Hokies started out well.
In Pittsburgh at the NCAA Wrestling Championships, Zavatsky and Lewis did what they were supposed taking care of business against weaker competition to advance to the quarterfinals with Zavatsky's draw to the finals making him the favorite after the 2 seed went down. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech basketball had some nervy moments against Saint Louis, but were comfortably able to advance to a second round stage that they hadn't reached in over a decade with 12 seed Liberty separating them from a spot in the Sweet 16.
However, as we've seen so many times in the past it feels like, those strong starts and golden opportunities for a breakthrough took a downward turn.
In Pittsburgh, Zavatsky was beaten for the third time this year by Northern Iowa's eventual national champion Drew Foster, eliminating what appeared to be VT's best chance at getting that elusive individual national championship. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech basketball had a rough start against Liberty being down by as much as 8 in the first half before taking a 32-29 deficit into halftime after a shaky first half where they could have easily been down by more.
Now this is the part of the story where the past realities of Virginia Tech coming short on the big stage begin to creep in major ways whether it was Jared Haught coming so close to a national championship last year, all the heartbreak of Virginia Tech football from the 2000 Sugar Bowl to the Danny Coale caught the ball Sugar Bowl and VT coming so close to,upsetting Clemson in the 2016 ACC Championship, and Hokie hoops missing the Tournament years ago after beating Duke and Dick Vitale proclaiming that the Hokies would be dancing.
This started to look like the same script for Virginia Tech once again, a darling in some cases that fans cheered for but came up short, and the powerhouse who's defeat made someone else's crazy dream reality.
That's what the rest of the story is supposed to normally be about, how Virginia Tech came up just short but how don't worry, they'll get their shot again and when they do, they'll finally breakthrough, the continual story about being the bridesmaid and being told you'll be the bride someday but never seeming to escape the secondary role.
But this time, for what feels like the first time in a while, Virginia Tech stepped onto the big stage both as favorite and underdog, and made those crazy, seemingly impossible dreams reality.
It started in Pittsburgh with Mekhi Lewis entering the quarterfinals having a brutal path to go through but suddenly, Lewis upset the 1 seed, Iowa's undefeated star Alex Marinelli. Then, Lewis took down another better-seeded wrestler in Wisconsin's Evan Wick, setting the stage for what felt like a David vs. Goliath matchup, a freshman in Lewis against a two-time defending national champion in Vincenzo Joseph who came out of the greatest wrestling powerhouse in the history of the sport, Penn State.
On paper, it seemed like one too many mountains for a freshman to climb to the top of one of the strongest, youngest weight classes in America. But to Mekhi Lewis, this was just a little hill on his way to showing America that he wasn't the underdog but actually the king.
In the matter of 7 minutes, Lewis thoroughly dominated Joseph nearly pinning the two-time champ via a four-point second period cradle and then turning Joseph's best takedown effort into a takedown of Joseph to seal the elusive national title late in the third period. People went into a frenzy from his family matside to Hokie fans all across the country who made sure that the Wrestling Championships, on a night full of March Madness games, was the one thing on sports bar TVs across the country.
The next night in San Jose, Virginia Tech basketball was that heavy favorite that seemed set to help launch another Cinderella story in Liberty, that seemed poised to see their dream disappear despite having a dream path. The worries grew after Virginia Tech's 7-0 run to open the second half was immediately countered by a 7-0 run of Liberty's.
But this wasn't the dream turning into a nightmare like the past. This time, the Hokies had a closing response to take hold of what they were supposed to claim, a berth in the Sweet 16.
The Hokies had the final punch using a dominant defense along with clutch shooting from guys like Ahmed Hill and Ty Outlaw early before Justin Robinson and Kerry Blackshear helped take over down the stretch to take down Liberty and claim the Sweet 16 dream that seemed set to disappear like so many others had for VT regardless of the sport.
This time, the Hokies wouldn't come up short as a heavy favorite on a big stage. This time, the Hokies would step up like the powerhouse program that they have become in basketball.
In a matter of a weekend, Virginia Tech and Hokie fans went head-to-head with the same storylines they've seen in the past: VT gets a great opportunity as the powerhouse or becomes the lovable underdog yet in both cases they come up short. The monkeys on the back seemed poised to stay right where they were as fear and doubt crept in among fans.
Yet that fear and doubt didn't creep in Pittsburgh and San Jose. It didn't creep in during halftime when the Hokies were down to a Liberty team that had all the makings of a Cinderella. In didn't creep in when Mekhi Lewis had to go through 3 of the top 4 wrestlers in the rankings including a two-time defending national champ.
Instead, something else happened, a breakthrough unlike any we've seen before. A breakthrough to realize the dreams that Virginia Tech fans had and the goals that these programs had set to reach the Sweet 16 and have an individual wrestling champion.
A breakthrough that was finally no longer out of reach, but instead was one to be realized and celebrate by Hokie fans from coast to coast. A breakthrough that gives Hokie fans reasons to celebrate and dream even bigger that even greater achievements are coming and like these dreams, can be realized.
The breakthrough that shows that those big dreams of greatness can be fulfilled at Virginia Tech.
Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
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