Most freshman in college wrestling don’t get a whole lot of attention before their careers start. But most freshman aren’t Mekhi Lewis.
The Virginia Tech 165-pounder won the Junior World Championships in September, just over a month before starting his collegiate wrestling career. Once he took that world title, there was no doubt there would be a target on his back.
“Me and my dad talked about it. Me and the coaches talked about it,” Lewis said of the possibility that opponents would be more prepared for him. “It’s not going to change my approach of whoever I wrestle. If they know how I wrestle that’s fine.”
Lewis isn’t paying any mind to the fact that his world championship drew more eyes to his wrestling. As he says, if he’s good enough to make some noise in the wrestling landscape, his opponents will have to see him wrestle at some point.
“It just makes me more aware of how much I have to improve still and just being aware that it is a target on my back,” Lewis said. “I’m going to have to just wrestle hard and just defend, I guess, my title.”
While Lewis was aware of how his world title would change the way his opponents wrestle him, Virginia Tech head coach Tony Robie was more concerned with making sure Lewis doesn’t get too caught up in the hype.
“To me, we’ve got to move forward, we’ve got to move past that and try to stop talking about it,” Robie said. “Really it has nothing to do with the college wrestling season. So Mekhi’s focus has got to be on accomplishing his goals this year in folkstyle and collegiate wrestling.”
Lewis didn’t have much trouble moving on from his world title. He started his first season in a Hokies singlet by adding another title to his resume, going 4-0 on Nov. 4 to win the Hokie Open in Roanoke. An 8-6 decision over No. 18 Bryce Martin of Indiana sealed the deal and gave Lewis his first success as a member of an NCAA team.
After the tournament, Robie said the day of competition was essential to getting Lewis prepared for the college season.
“I just think it’s another step in the right direction,” Robie said. “It’s another step in the process that he has to take towards his goals of winning a national championship and being an All-American. It was good for him to get out there and compete a little bit and knock some folkstyle rust off of him.”
Lewis started out his run that day with a 10-4 decision and an 18-6 major decision. While Robie was impressed with his performance, he acknowledged that there’s always something to work on.
“I thought he did a really good job,” Robie said. “I thought he could’ve probably opened it up a little bit more and scored a few more takedowns, but overall I was really pleased with how he performed.”
The redshirt freshman from Bound Brook, N.J. competed unattached last season while he was redshirting. He went 28-2 while winning five of the six open tournaments that he participated in. His only two losses came against NCAA qualifiers, one of whom was Lock Haven’s Chance Marsteller, who placed fourth in the NCAA Tournament. Overall, Lewis went 6-2 against 2018 NCAA qualifying wrestlers.
In his first season as a member of the Hokies squad, he’s come out just as hot. Mekhi Lewis has started the season 10-2, winning the Hokie Open and placing second in the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas. He’s gone 2-1 in dual meets, losing to Missouri’s Connor Flynn by an 8-6 decision. Lewis got called for hands-to-the-face twice in the first period, which ended up being a difference maker in that match. He rebounded two days later by defeating Northwestern’s Anthony Petrone.
He rode that momentum all the way to Las Vegas, where he picked up four straight wins to earn a trip to the finals. Lewis ended up placing second in the tournament, dropping a 2-0 decision to Nebraska’s Isaiah White.
He started his weekend in Vegas with a 19-4 tech fall over Central Michigan’s Bret Fedewa. Lewis scored six takedowns in the match and racked up six near fall points to open the tournament with a dominating performance.
Following his first round win, Lewis picked up three straight victories over Top 25 opponents, including two who were ranked higher than him at the time. He defeated Wyoming’s Branson Ashworth 3-1 before defeating Northern Iowa’s Bryce Steiert 2-0 in the semifinals.
White was the only opponent who was able to fend off Lewis’ attacks as he won the finals with an escape and the riding time point. By the end of the tournament, Lewis had fared well against some of the best guys in his weight class, which doesn’t surprise Tony Robie in the least.
“He’s got a tough weight class, but he’s a competitor and that’s the thing I like the most about him,” Robie said. “I think when the stakes are at their highest Mekhi competes at his best, so we expect big things from Mekhi this year and in the future.”
When the latest set of rankings came out on Tuesday, it was clear Lewis’ performance in Vegas did not go unnoticed by the wrestling media. InterMat bumped him up six spots to No. 8, leaping past both Steiert and Ashworth. FloWrestling moved Lewis from No. 16 to No. 9, but kept Ashworth two spots ahead at No. 7.
His second-place finish also earned him Co-Wrestler of the Week from the ACC, sharing the honor with Pitt’s Micky Phillippi, who placed second in the 133-pound weight class in Las Vegas. With Lewis’ skill level, that honor could be the first of many for the freshman.
Lewis followed those honors and jumps in the rankings with a major decision victory over Princeton's Dale Tiongson in VT's home opener this past Friday.
As he moves on with his season, Mekhi Lewis has high hopes for the rest of the year.
“That’s what I really came here is to wrestle for the school and to try to win the national title,” Lewis said. “So now, to be able to have the opportunity is really exciting.”