For the second straight year, Virginia Tech will have a wrestler competing for a national title on Saturday night. Redshirt freshman Mekhi Lewis beat Evan Wick 5-2 in the semifinals on Friday to advance to Saturday’s championship bout.
Lewis becomes just the third finalist in Virginia Tech’s history, following Devin Carter in 2014 and Jared Haught last season. This marks the first time that the Hokies have had a finalist in back-to-back seasons.
Lewis earned his way there by taking down Wisconsin’s Evan Wick. Wick was seeded fourth at 165 pounds, and was a popular pick to win this match.
Lewis started the match off with a takedown in the first period, taking an early lead. He started the second period on bottom, getting a quick escape to jump out to a 3-1 lead. The third period started with the wrestlers in neutral, and neither was able to get any offense going as Lewis earned the decision.
Despite the high-pressure situation, Lewis said he trying to stay loose leading up to and during his match.
“Make it fun,” he said. “The crowd, they’re so electric and they make the atmosphere feel really good so I was just feeding off of that and just playing around like in my head, just singing a couple songs, just thinking about funny stuff. Just things like that.”
The match was another physical one, even though there was little offense. Similar to Lewis’ quarterfinal win against Marinelli, both wrestlers were applying pressure the entire time and didn’t back off, which is the way Lewis likes it.
“Probably just staying hard in the hand fighting, knowing when to attack and not just attacking wild, crazy shots,” Lewis said when asked what his style of wrestling is. “Just being aware and being in good position and defending my legs.”
Wrestling for a team that’s never won an individual national championship, Lewis has been thinking about that goal for a while. But he’s not going to let that get the best of him tomorrow night.
“It’s like always on my mind, but I have to set it to the side tonight because I want to mainly just focus on just trying to do the best I can,” Lewis said. “Not worrying about that and then end up being in the match where, if I’m winning, I’m trying to hold a lead because of that reason, trying to be the first.”
While he’s trying not to think too much about his upcoming match, his coach knows how much it means to the program and to Lewis to be in this position.
“It’s a big deal. We’re not done yet,” head coach Tony Robie said. “We’re excited about the challenge tomorrow. Mekhi is wrestling really, really well. I think he presents a lot of challenges for anybody. Excited to start game planning for that tomorrow and I know Mekhi will bring some heat.”
Lewis will face Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph in the finals on Saturday. Joseph is the two-seed in the 165 weight class and brings a record of 30-1 into the match. Lewis knows he’ll have his hands full with the two-time national champion, but he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“I’m excited. I like competition, especially good competition because at the end of the day I want to get better,” Lewis said. “He’s going to push me, I know that. I feel like its going to be a really good match tomorrow.”
Joseph is excited for their match as well, saying that Lewis has every right to think he can win the title.
“I don’t see why he wouldn’t think that,” Joseph said. “He’s a good wrestler and he’s proved it all year, previous years. I’ve never really watched him wrestle too much but it’s going to be a good match. He wrestles hard, I’ll wrestle hard. It’s going to be exciting.”
Other Hokies saw success on Friday night as well. Senior Zack Zavatsky earned All-American honors for the second time in his career, winning a 5-4 decision over Taylor Venz thanks to the riding time point. Zavatsky will wrestle for seventh place on Saturday after dropping his next match to Illinois’ Emery Parker.
Junior David McFadden reached All-American status as well, defeating Northern Iowa’s Taylor Lujan by 20-9 major decision. McFadden won a 2-0 decision in the next round to advance to the consolation semifinals, where he’ll face Missouri’s Daniel Lewis.
The Hokies’ 174-pounder becomes just the fifth wrestler in program history to be a three-time All-American, joining Devin Carter, Nick Brascetta, Ty Walz and Jared Haught.
Both McFadden and Zavatsky had to battle back after losing in the championship bracket. They fought out tough wins to find their ways back to the podium after both placing last season.
“Gotta feel really, really good about that and the way David McFadden came back and wrestled and Zack Zavatsky too after losing some tough matches in the quarterfinals,” Robie said. “That’s a tough round to bounce back from. For us to get three All-Americans and to have three guys wrestling still and one in the finals, I feel good about it.”
This year’s tournament marks the seventh consecutive season that Virginia Tech has had three or more All-Americans. Only Cornell, Iowa, Penn State and Oklahoma State have accomplished the same feat.
For McFadden and Zavatsky, Robie wants to make sure they don’t get complacent with just reaching that status. They have more matches to wrestle and he wants them to keep the fire burning.
“Right now, you know a lot of this is just about grit and pride and will to win and desire. I think there’s a lot of guys that want to be done wrestling right now,” Robie said. “They’re happy to be All-Americans and you don’t want to be one of those guys. We want to feel good about how we leave this tournament and how we compete more than anything.”
There was some heartbreak for the Hokies on Friday night as 197-pounder Tom Sleigh lost in the consolation bracket, unable to become an All-American. A redshirt senior, Sleigh ends his career with over 100 wins.
The trio of Lewis, McFadden and Zavatsky will be back in action Saturday, with the latter two wrestling in the morning session. Wrestling begins at 11 a.m. with the medal rounds taking place later in the session.