Tech wrestler makes the most of his final NCAA Championships

By Jimmy Robertson

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – Most people tend to think of “March Madness” in basketball terms, with the tones from “One Shining Moment” bouncing through their craniums, and that’s understandable considering all the exciting buzzer beaters and bracket busters normally associated with the NCAA Tournament this time of year.

But those types of moments can carry over to other sports – and for Sal Mastriani, “one shining moment” took on a rather personal flavor.

Mastriani, a Virginia Tech wrestler competing in his final NCAA Wrestling Championships, delivered the most poignant memory of the Hokies’ five-day stay in St. Louis, and it bears recapping, as the team returned home Sunday evening following its fifth straight top-10 finish.

That memory came on Friday night when Mastriani beat an unseeded wrestler from Rider named Bryant Clagon. He rallied for an 8-7 win, and with that victory, he became an All-American for the first time in his five-year career.

“It’s something I wanted my whole life,” an emotional Mastriani said afterward. “I’ve been watching this tournament since elementary school, and I knew this was exactly what I wanted. To achieve that … I’m loving life right now. It can’t get better than that. That’s the best way to explain it.”

The win had the Tech contingent of several hundred people roaring in approval – their biggest cheer of the entire tournament. Wrestling may not be the nation’s most popular sport, but its fans know it inside and out. The Tech faithful absolutely knew that Mastriani had not gotten to this point in his five years at Tech, and they appreciated and respected his journey to this point.

Being an All-American is every collegiate wrestler’s goal. Only a select few possess the rare good fortune to win a national championship, but the All-America recognition still carries a huge amount of importance, validating the work put in over the course of a career – and really, a lifetime. Mastriani made the most of his final attempt and now his headshot will be displayed on the All-American wall that leads into Tech’s wrestling facility.

“That guy has come so far over the course of his career,” interim coach Tony Robie said. “It just shows what happens when it’s really important to you, and wrestling is important to Sal. Being an All-American was really important to Sal. I couldn’t be prouder and couldn’t be happier for him.”

The story almost didn’t have this type of ending. In the second round, Mastriani faced No. 3 seed Joey Lavallee from Missouri. He nearly upset Lavallee, grabbing Lavallee’s leg for a potential match-winning takedown in overtime. Instead, Lavallee made an incredible move and ended up winning by fall. Lavallee went on to compete in the national title match at 157 pounds.

Such a loss could be crushing for most wrestlers. Instead, Mastriani won three straight matches in the consolation round to become an All-American.

“Just stay in a positive mind,” Mastriani said of how he rebounded. “Obviously, every single person that comes here wants to be a national champion, myself included. Having a positive mind is so important. To lose like that, to the No. 3 seeded guy, you’ve got to take it, swallow it and move forward – and I think that’s what I did.”

The fifth-year senior from Towaco, New Jersey is used to overcoming adversity. He took a redshirt season his first year at Tech to develop and to get stronger, but over the course of the next two-plus years he struggled with injuries.

He also struggled to find a weight class. He spent the early part of his career at 149 pounds with varying degrees of success, but this past season, Tech’s staff decided to move Solomon Chishko to 149. That meant bumping Mastriani up to 157.

The two-time NCAA qualifier went 20-9 this past season and concluded his Tech career with 65 total wins.

“I think a lot of it was finding a weight class,” Mastriani said. “I’ve been up and down in weight classes. Then it’s just a matter of maturing physically and maturing mentally. Maybe that happens for some people quicker. Maybe it just took a little longer for me, but everything really clicked this year for me.”

“It [this season] says a lot about his perseverance, a lot about his character, a lot about his will and desire to win and his toughness,” Robie said. “That was on display in that match more than anything. He deserves a lot of credit. He had a pretty good year as a sophomore. Last year, he struggled a little bit, but for him to just stay in there mentally and keep working and keep getting better … it’s a testament to what he’s done in the last 12 months.”

Mastriani finished in eighth place at 157, falling in the seventh-place match to end his career. He, Joey Dance and Ty Walz all wrestled their final matches as Hokies at this tournament, and their departures leave the Tech program transitioning to a new era.

But nothing will take away Mastriani’s memory of beating Clagon – and what it meant. Nothing will take away from his participation in the Parade of All-Americans shortly before the start of the championship matches Saturday night. Nothing will take away from receiving his All-America trophy.

As the official raised Mastriani’s arm signifying his victory over Clagon, Mastriani found his parents, who made the trip to St. Louis from New Jersey, in the stands. His dad, also Sal, had his arms raised, yelling in approval. His mom, Jen, did the same.

“It was just an unbelievable feeling,” Mastriani said.

Mastriani proved that basketball doesn’t have exclusivity on shining moments this time of year. They can happen for student-athletes in other sports. It happened for him – and provided a memory that will last a lifetime.

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