It’s a rainy Friday afternoon in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech head coach Tony Robie sits in his office in Jamerson Athletic Center, surrounded by four ACC Tournament Championship trophies from previous seasons.
This weekend, he and his team will have a chance to add a fifth.
“They understand the importance of this and they understand that this is part of the process of achieving their individual goals as well,” Robie said of his wrestlers. “For us, I think our guys are hungry and they’re eager to get back out and compete again. They’re excited to prove what we’re all about.”
Virginia Tech is hosting the ACC Championships in Cassell Coliseum for the first time since 2014. Having the event at the Hokies’ home arena will be huge for the team. The fan base has shown up for every home dual meet this season, coming out in droves to support the Hokies. Robie expects that to continue when all six ACC teams convene under one roof.
“We’ll have great fan support, I’m sure,” Robie said. “I felt like we had the most fans at the ACC Championship last year in Chapel Hill, so I have got to think we’re going to have a great crowd and Hokie Nation is going to come out and support us.”
The Hokies finished the ACC season 3-2, losing duals to North Carolina and NC State. While they were unable to win a regular season title, the ACC Tournament Championship is a wide open race.
Seeds were released on Tuesday, and Tech leads the way with three No. 1 seeds in the tournament. Mekhi Lewis, David McFadden and Zack Zavatsky are all at the top of their weight classes after going 5-0 in ACC competition during the regular season.
The fact that they’re facing guys they’ve beaten before doesn’t exactly give them an edge though.
“There’s not really an advantage to anybody. Everybody is in the same situation. To me, it’s not a huge deal,” Robie said about facing familiar opponents. “Obviously we’ll do some preparation for guys individually, but mostly you’ve got to worry about yourself. You have to be aware of some things that your opponents might be good at or where they want to wrestle from.”
Although this weekend is a tournament and not a dual meet, Robie says there’s not much difference in the way the team prepares going into the competition. The ACC Tournament is different than others in that there are only six teams in the conference. The smaller number of schools allows it to be a one-day tournament, as opposed to other conferences who spread theirs out over a weekend.
In addition to that, Robie says that the break between the end of the dual meet season and the conference tournament is much-needed time for preparing his wrestlers.
“I think as much as anything it just allows us to continue to focus on guys individually and what they need to do and just spend some more time training because we had the weekend off,” Robie said. “That’s as big a thing as anything is to have a weekend off in between competitions and try to make some gains over the course of those 14 days.”
The team has been making good use of that time, too. The coaching staff gave the team the weekend off after the dual against NC State, but they hit the ground running when they came back.
“I feel like our guys needed the weekend off,” Robie said. “I think they came back fired up, ready to go. I like the energy and I think this time of year is mostly about energy and excitement and just fine tuning some things.”
The team has been working on all aspects of the sport in order to help them succeed this weekend. They’ve spent time working on specific areas for each wrestler to reach his potential and reach the podium.
“It gives us a good opportunity to get a good training phase where we can be really specific in the areas we want to improve in both technically and strategically and from a conditioning standpoint. It’s been a good training phase,” Robie said.
The Hokies have won four ACC titles in the past six seasons and they’ve won two straight heading into this year’s tournament. That past success shows that the team knows the importance of a conference championship.
Still, it’s hard to ignore that the NCAA Championships linger just ahead. The Division I tournament kicks off on March 21 in Pittsburgh, just under two weeks from the ACC Tournament.
Some of Tech’s wrestlers came into the 2018-19 season with hopes of reaching All-American status or even a national championship. But Robie doesn’t think that those aspirations will cause them to overlook this weekend’s tournament.
Throw in the fact that they’re competing in front of a home crowd this weekend, and that’s really all the motivation they’ll need.
“I think for us we prepare for what’s in front of us,” Robie said. “I think everybody in the back of their mind knows that the NCAAs is a couple weeks away, but I think the fact that we’re at Cassell Coliseum and we’ve got a chance to win an ACC title, you don’t have to have a lot more out there for them than that.”
Wrestling at the ACC Championships begins at 11 a.m. on Saturday and will conclude with the final round beginning at 7 p.m. Only time will tell if the Hokies can complete the three-peat, which hasn’t been achieved since North Carolina won three-straight ACC titles from 1997-2000.
One thing is for sure: Robie and the Hokies will need their fans to show up and be loud this weekend.
“I think we’ve got great momentum from a fan standpoint right now and people are behind us and they’re excited about wrestling,” Robie said. “We’ve got a lot of new people on board. I think that helps a lot when you’re in your own gym and you have your fans behind you and I think that can create a lot of momentum for us.”