Dance, Hokies seek big finish at NCAA Championships

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Winter Storm Stella altered the travel plans up and down the East Coast, and those of the Virginia Tech wrestling team were of no exception. Her rain, sleet and snow forced the Tech contingent to spend Monday night in Charlotte before flying to St. Louis on Tuesday to get ready for the NCAA Wrestling Championships, which commence Thursday at noon.

The changes didn’t bother the Hokies. The seven wrestlers who qualified are more than ready to get the competition started – none more so than senior Joey Dance.

Dance, who enters Thursday’s first-round action with a sterling 25-1 record and a No. 2 ranking in his weight class by Intermat, already rates as one of the greatest wrestlers in program history. He became one of just five wrestlers to win three ACC championships when he claimed the 125-pound crown on March 3. His 109 wins stand 10th on Tech’s all-time list. He earned All-America honors as a freshman in 2014, becoming the first Tech wrestler to do so as a freshman.

Yet the past two NCAA appearances haven’t gone as one might have expected.

A year ago, he entered as the No. 2 seed at 125, but was upset 5-3 in the second round by No. 15 seed David Terao of American University and then lost 4-3 in the consolation round to Old Dominion’s Brandon Jeske. In 2015, he fell 7-5 in sudden victory in the quarterfinals to Iowa’s Thomas Gilman and then lost 3-1 in sudden victory to Conor Youtsey of Michigan.

He missed out on earning All-America honors both years, as the top eight wrestlers in each weight class receive the recognition.

“I feel like at the last two NCAAs that I was too worried about losing,” Dance said in a recent interview. “I was out there not moving around too much and not trying to score a lot of points because I was so worried and so stressed out about losing the match.

“Now, if I just go out there and have fun and let the fur fly, then I can put up the points and not have to worry about winning 3-2 or 4-2. Just go out there and score points.”

So far this season, that is exactly what he has been doing. Fourteen of his 25 wins have been of the bonus variety. He won the prestigious Cliff Keen tournament out in Las Vegas in early December and then he helped the Hokies win the Virginia Duals in mid-January, wrestling in dominating fashion.

At the Virginia Duals, he won his first two matches by technical fall and then he beat North Dakota State’s Josh Rodriguez – who is currently ranked No. 7 in the nation – by a score of 5-3. In the finals, he pinned Oklahoma’s Christian Moody.

Three bonus-point wins in four matches are exactly the type of commanding performances any wrestler wants.

“I had a slow start [to the season]. I wasn’t winning matches by a big amount,” Dance said. “Then I went into the Virginia Duals with a different attitude. I realized that this is my senior year, and this is my last shot at really going after a national title. I looked at it that way and really just let it all fly and scored a lot of points.

“If I wrestle the same way I wrestled at the Virginia Duals, where I’m moving a lot and throwing a lot of fakes in there and getting guys to react to what I’m doing, then that’s when I’m at my best.”

Dance expects to be wrestling in the finals of his weight class on Saturday night. Of course, every wrestler harbors those same thoughts, but Dance went 10-1 against the 125-pound field this season, with the lone loss coming against Lehigh’s Darian Cruz, who is seeded fourth in the Championships.

The road, though, will not be easy. He faces a potential rematch with Youtsey in the second round, though he owns a win over Youtsey, having beaten him last year at the National Duals. Also, No. 3 seed Nick Suriano of Penn State sits on Dance’s side of the bracket, and if the bracket goes all chalk, then a rematch with Gilman and his 27-0 record await in the finals. Dance has beaten Gilman in the past – 3-1 in sudden victory at the Midlands Championships two seasons ago.

Survive and advance, however, needs to be the mantra both for Dance and the Hokies. All seven qualifiers were seeded, with Ty Walz being a No. 3 seed at heavyweight and both Zach Epperly (174 pounds) and Jared Haught (197 pounds) being No. 4 seeds. Zack Zavatsky was seeded fifth at 184 pounds, while Sal Mastriani came in 15th at 157.

Led mostly by these seven, the team spent nearly all season ranked in the top 10, much of it in the top five. The group knows how to win.

“Up and down the lineup, we have a lot of great guys,” Dance said. “We’re a big family. It’s really good if I go out there and get things started. If I do well, then they’ll see that and think, ‘OK, it’s time to get going. Joey did well, and I need to one-up him.’ We’ll try to out-do each other.

“I think this is the best team we’ve had. We could be a national championship team this year. I really do believe that. We have some guys that could sneak in there.”

Tech’s wrestling program has finished in the top 11 at the NCAA Championships for five consecutive years and in the top 10 on four straight occasions. It finished a program-best fourth a year ago.

Dance and the Hokies still want more. Despite Stella’s meddling, that road begins Thursday at noon.

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