Just a little over a decade ago, Virginia Tech Wrestling was on life support. There were talks that the program was going to be cancelled for good after Tom Brands, who was at the helm of the team for two seasons, left for his alma mater Iowa. He was a four-time All-American as a Hawkeye and became an Olympic gold medalist at the 1996 games . Brands had brought in one of the top recruits in the nation at Virginia Tech, but when he left, so did he. The program was at an all-time low after.
Enter Kevin Dresser in 2006. Dresser, who also graduated from the University of Iowa, was a two-time All-American and had huge success there. After coaching stints across the country, he found himself at Christiansburg High School, less than 20 minutes from Virginia Tech. In his 10 seasons there, he led the school to five consecutive State Championships and had them ranked as high as number four in the nation at one point.
Virginia Tech, taking notice of his success, brought Dresser in as a consultant when they decided to keep the program in 2006. Trying to help find the next coach for the Hokies, it was soon realized that the perfect man for the job was Dresser himself. He was hired in 2006 and began rebuilding the program.
He brought in a solid coaching staff as well, and hired Tony Robie as an assistant. Robie was the head coach at Binghamton University, and was previously an assistant coach at Edinboro, West Virginia, and the University of Michigan. When coming to Virginia Tech, he saw the potential in the school and the program, despite the struggles it was going through.
"It was very easy for me to see that this is a place that could be successful, this is a place that people are going to want to come to, this is a place where I felt like we could build a really good thing with the resources that were available to us and the resources that they were dedicating to the program at the time," said Virginia Tech head coach, Tony Robie.
While the program took years to build, the hard work started to pay off for Dresser and Robie as the program won its first ACC Championship in school history in the 2012-2013 season. Virginia Tech has now won three of the last five ACC Championships and has placed in the top 10 of the NCAA Championship five years in a row as a team. They're now considered an ACC powerhouse and are consistently in the national spotlight.
Going into the ACC tournament last season, the team went through a change of leadership. Dresser, who revived the program in 2006, was leaving for his home state as he accepted the Iowa State head coach position. Tony Robie, was promoted to interim head coach and guided the team in the postseason. Following the season, Tony Robie was named permanent head coach of Virginia Tech Wrestling.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity that I have to be the head coach at Virginia Tech. I've envisioned myself as a head coach for a long time and to be able to stay home and to be able to do it at a place where I want to be is pretty special for me and it's something I don't take for granted," said Tony Robie in an interview with The Tech Lunch Pail.
Robie brought in highly qualified assistant coaches to be on his staff, including Frank Molinaro and Jared Frayer, who are both former middleweight Olympians. When asked about how to put his stamp on the program, Robie said he is more focused on how he and his staff together will leave their mark. He is excited to watch them implement their style and notes that he hired them because of that and the world-class credentials each of them have.
Assuming the volunteer assistant coaching role is a familiar name for many Hokies fans, Ty Walz. Walz is one of the most decorated wrestlers in history at Virginia Tech and graduated last season as an All-American and an ACC champion at heavyweight.
"He was definitely my top priority to keep around upon his graduation. Ty has just embodied everything that we want to stand for as a program over the course of the last five years," said Robie. "He just set the tone in terms of the amount of work it takes to be great in our sport."
The Hokies lost many key starters this offseason due to graduation including Ty Walz, Joey Dance, Zach Epperly, and Sal Mastriani. Despite the losses of accomplished veterans, 2015 Freshman of the Year and All-American David McFadden (165) returns after injuries forced him to redshirt last season. On top of the return of McFadden, Jared Haught (197), Solomon Chishko (149), and Zack Zavatsky (184) are all back and ranked in the top 6 in their respective weight classes according to InterMat.
"It's a different year for sure. We've got five guys that have a lot of experience within our program that have had a lot of success at the national level," said Robie.
The schedule for this team will put them to the test early as they welcome Stanford to open the season. Virginia Tech will also host Missouri in one of the most highly anticipated early season duals in collegiate wrestling later this month. VT will host Central Michigan and travel to Chattanooga in November, and face West Virginia and Princeton to close out 2017.
The Hokies will kick off 2018 with an interesting road dual at Edinboro and have a break in their ACC schedule to host Lehigh. They'll close the regular season out with dual meets against Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, and an ACC title contender, North Carolina State.
"You want to make sure that it (the schedule) prepares you for the NCAA Tournament, and part of getting prepared for the NCAA Tournament is getting exposed a little bit and wrestling some really good teams, figuring out where your weaknesses are and hopefully improving upon those weaknesses, and tweaking some stuff so when we step on the mat in Cleveland in March, we've got a lot of things ironed out," said Robie.
With the new season approaching this weekend, Tony Robie is excited for this year's team. The goals and standards of this program have not changed. Virginia Tech wrestling wants to continue to be great.
"We expect to win ACC Championships. We've got two opportunities, we've got the dual meet championship and the tournament championship. We want to compete for trophies at the NCAA tournament and top four finishes. I do think that we have the firepower to do that. There's five weight classes that I feel we're really, really good at and then at the other five, I've think we've got some guys that can step up. I've been pleased with a lot of those guys," said Robie.
For a program that was on life support just 11 years ago and has now won three of the last five ACC Championships, it is beyond impressive to see how far Virginia Tech wrestling has come. It's now up to Tony Robie to continue the success that he and Dresser built over their 11 years together in Blacksburg. Robie and his staff has Virginia Tech poised to make a run at another ACC title and compete at the highest level at the NCAA tournament in March.
Virginia Tech, ranked 9th in the country, opens up their season this Saturday in Cassell Coliseum at 1:30 PM as they host the Stanford Cardinal, ranked 21st.
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