Virginia Tech has been one of the most successful wrestling programs in the country in recent years, finishing in the top 10 at the NCAA Tournament in six consecutive seasons. If you ask head coach Tony Robie about that success, he has a simple answer.
“I think when you have a philosophy that works and you have an environment and an atmosphere that’s been successful for you, you know how you like to do things, there’s not a real big reason to change,” Robie said at the team’s media day on Tuesday.
Robie is preparing to lead the Hokies in his 13th season with the team and his second as head coach. He took over the program before the 2017-18 season after previous head coach Kevin Dresser left for Iowa State. Stepping up after being an assistant for so long is part of what Robie thinks helped continue the culture that the team had built.
“I think the continuity was good, it was important,” Robie said. “I think it was important for the guys on our team to have somebody fill that position that they knew, that they trusted.”
While the continuity was beneficial, Robie couldn’t do it alone, and Dresser had taken assistant coach Derek St. John with him to Ames.
Needing to fill his coaching staff, Robie brought in assistant coaches Jared Frayer and Frank Molinaro, both of whom have seen personal success as Olympic wrestlers. He added to the staff by bringing former Virginia Tech heavyweight Ty Walz on as a volunteer assistant coach. Walz was a three-time All-American and is currently a member of the United States World Team.
“We got some new coaches in here that were able to add to some of the things we were doing for a long time, that I think helped us in some areas; but basically, it was business as usual,” Robie said. “We didn’t miss a beat and we just kept doing the things that we’ve done in the past.”
This staff of coaches led the Hokies to an ACC Championship and an eighth-place finish at the NCAA Championships in 2018. Virginia Tech had three All-Americans, two of whom are returning to the team for this upcoming season.
However, Robie knows that the coaches can’t be the only ones building the culture around the program. The athletes play a large part in that, and according to their coach, they do a fine job of doing just that.
“I just like the way they work and I like what they’re putting in to their preparation for the season,” Robie said. “I know that wrestling is very, very important to these guys. I know that being successful is very, very important to them and they bring great effort to practice every day and they bring great effort to everything that they do.”
According to Robie, the coaching staff can only do so much for the team. They can help them with the technical, strategy and conditioning areas of wrestling, but they can’t help them with the mental aspect. That part of the sport is up to the wrestlers.
“Their job is to bring great effort, great intensity, great desire and passion to the preparation and that’s what I like most about this group is that in most cases and most days I feel really good about those intangible things that they bring into the wrestling room,” Robie said.
That attitude of hard work and hustle isn’t just noticed by the coaches. Redshirt junior David McFadden says it’s clear how hard the team trains and how intense the wrestlers can get.
McFadden has seen the benefits of that intensity in the wrestling room. The New Jersey native is a two-time All-American and won the ACC Championship at 165 pounds in 2018. As he prepares for the 2018-19 season, he appreciates the tenacity that the team shows in their practice.
“I think being able to battle and brawl and just wrestle until you’re completely exhausted and busting through walls, I’ve seen a lot of that,” McFadden said. “Guys don’t like losing, guys don’t like giving up takedowns. That’s what we have on this team. We have a lot of guys who want to win.”
McFadden says that wrestling is one of the most demanding and grueling sports, and contrasts it with other sports by pointing out that they compete all year round. When the NCAA season is over, the Hokies go right into freestyle mode, training what they believe to be the next group of world and Olympic champions.
With all the work they put into their sport, the student-athletes need some form of release.
“We try and make it as fun as possible,” McFadden said. “You don’t hear wrestling and fun often categorized in the same sentence but that’s what we try to do. We try to make it as fun as we can. We try to keep it lighthearted in the room.”
McFadden says that he and his teammates can be goofy together and are all good friends, but when the time comes to flip the switch, they’re able to focus solely on wrestling.
“We come in and work hard. We’re all friends on the team, but for an hour and a half, two hours, what happens inside the room stays inside the room,” McFadden said. “If things get chippy, they get chippy. After, we’ll shake hands and we’ll be friends.”
Wrestling for a program that’s seen as much recent success as Virginia Tech can bring its challenges. There are high expectations for the team, but the relationships they build off the mat outweigh the struggles on it.
“There’s pressures and we have our pride, our ego, but at the end of the day, it’s a sport and there’s a lot of stuff that we’re grateful to have – our friends, our coaches," McFadden said.
As the team gears up to start the season, there have been a few changes. Former All-American and 2018 finalist in the 197-pound weight class Jared Haught graduated, leaving the Hokies without one of their best athletes of all time. He didn’t go far, though.
Haught was added to the coaching staff of the Southeast Regional Training Center during the offseason, keeping him close to the Virginia Tech program.
“It’s huge. You see all the successful RTC’s, their best guys stick around,” McFadden said about having Haught and Walz still in the wrestling room. “Hopefully, when I’m done wrestling, I can stick around too. It’s so important for a program.”
When Coach Robie leads his team into the 2018 season, he can be proud of the sustained culture that he and his wrestlers helped build in Blacksburg. The camaraderie that his athletes feel and the effort that they put in has turned Virginia Tech into a powerhouse within Division I wrestling, and it looks as if it will be that way for years to come.
Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
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