Virginia Tech was unable to win its third consecutive ACC Championship on Saturday, but there was lots to be proud of from the Hokies’ performance. Three wrestlers won individual titles and nine earned automatic qualifications to the NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh.
“Overall if I break down individual performances, I felt like up and down the board, really at 10 weight classes, I felt like our guys went out, wrestled hard,” head coach Tony Robie said. “I felt like we won the matches for the most part that we should’ve won.”
The Hokies came in second place in the team score with a total of 86 points. NC State won the team title, scoring 93.5 points on the way to sweeping the dual and tournament championships for the season.
Despite the tournament loss, the individual performances were impressive from the Hokies. All but one earned a top three finish in their weight class. Mekhi Lewis, David McFadden and Zack Zavatsky each won individual titles, with Zavatsky winning his third ACC Championship, becoming just the sixth Virginia Tech wrestler to do so.
“It just feels good to be back on top,” Zavatsky said. “Last year I fell a bit short, but I think just staying on this journey throughout the year and just trying to be an experienced, veteran guy, I think just staying within my emotions, just trying to be relaxed at all times. I just felt great out there today.”
The redshirt senior was unable to win a conference title last season, losing out to NC State’s Pete Renda, but found redemption this year. He beat UNC's Chip Ness and Pitt's Nino Bonaccorsi on his way to the podium. In doing so, he also became a four-time NCAA qualifier, the 14th Hokie to accomplish the feat.
As he wrestled for the final time in Cassell Coliseum, he reflected on the time he’s spent in the Hokies’ home arena.
“It’s awesome. I always loved showing out for these fans,” Zavatsky said. “They’ve had my back through everything, all the good and hard times. I’m just feeling great right now and just appreciative and grateful.”
On the other end of the spectrum, a young wrestler won his first ACC title. Redshirt freshman Mekhi Lewis capped off a spectacular conference season with a first-place finish in his first ACC Tournament.
“It just feels really good,” Lewis said. “This is what I worked for. This and being a national champion. So this is just one step closer to my ultimate goal.”
Lewis had a first-round bye, so he wrestled for the first time in the semifinals. He defeated Zach Finesilver 14-7 to earn a trip to the finals.
In his championship match, Lewis defeated Thomas Bullard for the second time this season, this time by a 7-4 decision.
His win is just another accomplishment for the talented freshman, who started his year by winning the Junior World Championships.
“My freshman year, it felt good just knowing I’m improving and I’m getting better everyday and the opportunities that I was presented, just being able to wrestle Worlds and wrestle here, I’m just grateful for that whole experience. It makes me feel good.”
The fact that his first championship came in Cassell made him feel pretty good also.
“It was really special,” Lewis said. “I got my family to come out. I had a couple friends here. The fans. Just the atmosphere. I feel like the atmosphere here is one of the best. I’m just glad I had the opportunity to win it here, for my first win especially.”
In between the experienced Zavatsky and the young Lewis is McFadden, a redshirt junior and now two-time ACC Champion.
McFadden picked up a 12-1 major decision over Devin Kane to advance to the finals. There, he defeated Duke’s Matt Finesilver by a 4-1 decision to win his second-straight conference title.
“I just wrestled smart. I wrestled composed,” McFadden said. “I know how he wrestles, his scrambling style. All he’s going to try to do is hand fight me for seven minutes, so being able to tie him up in a controlled tie and stopping him off, I knew if he shot I was going to score on him and it happened twice.”
McFadden’s final match came in front of a crowd of more than 3,000 spectators in Cassell Coliseum, but the New Jersey native wasn’t concerned about the audience as he won his championship.
“I’ve wrestled on big stages my whole entire life,” McFadden said. “I wrestled in the New Jersey state finals twice, I wrestled on the world stage on the 23s, Fargo, Who’s No. 1? I wrestled the semifinals at NCAA. I’ve wrestled at the highest, highest levels anywhere in the world, so it’s just another match.”
“I like a big crowd and I like a loud, energetic crowd.”
McFadden will head to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in his career, and he’ll be joined by eight of his teammates. In addition to Lewis and Zavatsky, Korbin Myers, Mitch Moore, Ryan Blees, B.C. LaPrade, Tom Sleigh and Billy Miller all qualified for the national championships based on their finish in the ACC Championship this weekend. Complete brackets from the tournament can be found here.
Joey Prata finished third in the 125 weight class, a class that only had two automatic qualifiers. Its possible he could earn an at-large bid to NCAAs still, but we won’t know until the brackets come out next week.
Blees was the only wrestler to not place in the top three of his weight class, but he still earned an NCAA bid. Every other wrestler placed third or better, including Mitch Moore, who made it to the finals at 141.
As the two-seed in his bracket, Moore defeated AC Headlee in the semifinals 6-3 to advance to the championship bout. He lost 6-3 to Jamel Morris, but Robie was still proud of his work on the day.
“Mitch Moore, his effort was really good,” Robie said. “He’s got to clean some things up but his effort was really good. He went for it, he always goes for it.”
This marks the second-straight year that the Hokies have taken nine wrestlers to the NCAA Tournament, the first time they’ve ever had that many qualifiers in back-to-back years.
Although they had a lot of wrestlers qualify for nationals and the Hokies overall had a good showing on Saturday, there are some what ifs from the tournament.
Tom Sleigh had a first-round bye and didn’t wrestle until the semifinals. He took on Malik McDonald of NC State, a rematch from the season finale two weeks ago. Sleigh won the regular season matchup 3-2, and this one ended with the same score, but opposite result.
With seven seconds left and the score tied up 2-2, Sleigh was called for his second stalling penalty, giving a point to McDonald. McDonald would go on to win the match 3-2, knocking Sleigh into the consolation bracket.
“It was important. I obviously disagree with it,” Robie said. “The referee has a lot of power in those out of bounds calls and our guy was clearly trying to wrestle back in. That’s what the rule is. If you’re trying to wrestle back in and there’s action that takes you out of bounds, it’s not supposed to be stalling.”
If Sleigh hadn’t been called for stalling, the match likely would’ve gone to overtime, giving him a chance to get a win and advance to the finals. It also would’ve kept the team score closer, possibly affecting the overall outcome of the night.
“I think we’re down by four and a half, that’s one match,” Robie said. “We win at 197, we win at heavyweight in the semifinals and there’s a completely different result.”
But the call stood, and Sleigh was forced into the wrestlebacks.
He fared pretty well in the consolation bracket, though, winning both of his matches to place third in the 197-pound weight class.
Perhaps the most exciting moment of the tournament came in the third round matches. Miller won his match on mat 2 by a 5-2 decision to place third in the heavyweight class. Sleigh was wrestling on mat 1 at the same time, and not even ten seconds after Miller’s match had ended, Sleigh got a pin over Brandon Whitman to earn third in his bracket.
The predominantly Hokies crowd inside Cassell Coliseum proceeded to erupt as Tech slowly worked its way back up the standings.
“It was awesome,” Robie said of the crowd inside Cassell. “I think anybody that’s in the building today, regardless of what school you were rooting for, has to acknowledge that. It was the best crowd by far I’ve ever seen at an ACC Championships, not even close. And this is my 13th year going to the ACC Championships in a row.”
“Kudos to the Hokie Nation because they showed up. They didn’t get second place, that’s for sure.”
The team will now turn their attention to the NCAA Championships, which run from March 21-23 in Pittsburgh. Robie feels good about his team heading into the tournament, but knows there are some things to work on.
“We’re going to have to continue to make some improvements between now and Pittsburgh, there’s no question,” Robie said. “We’re going to have to continue to improve and get better.”
The Hokies will look to continue their streak of six-straight top 10 finishes, and they’ve got some guys that can help them get there.
“Korbin Myers I feel like is really close to being a top eight guy. Tom Sleigh is right there, Billy Miller is right there,” Robie said. “Obviously Mekhi, Dave and Zack Zavatsky are the guys that I feel really good about but we’ve got to make sure that we continue to improve, we get better and then that we go out there and we let it fly a little bit at the nationals and don’t hold back.”
Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics