New coach, same goals: Robie Era begins Saturday, preview of the lowerweights

BLACKSBURG - College athletics continues to become more and more complex, but when it came time to name a head wrestling coach, Virginia Tech AD Whit Babcock boiled the decision down to the simplest of forms.

“You don’t mess with something that’s fourth to sixth in the country,” Babcock said, referring to the wrestling program’s finish at the NCAA Championships the past two years.

With that in mind, Babcock made the common-sense move, tabbing Tony Robie, a longtime assistant at Tech, to be Kevin Dresser’s successor. For 11 seasons, Robie served as the top lieutenant for Dresser, who departed last February for the head coaching position at Iowa State.

Dresser actually left before last season ended, and Robie served in the interim, leading the Hokies to an ACC tournament title and the sixth-place finish at the NCAA Championships. In the five months since being named the head coach, he’s moved into a bigger office, changed the décor, assembled his staff and immersed himself in recruiting.

Other than that, he’s been doing most of the same things that helped the Tech program become one of the best in the country.

“I enjoy coming to work now as much as I ever have in my coaching career,” Robie said. “I’m really excited for the challenge. I’ve wanted to be a head coach for a long time. I felt I was ready for a long time. I didn’t see it playing out the way it did at Virginia Tech, but it worked out for me fantastically. I’m really excited about the future and the challenges ahead. I try to come to work every day and bring great energy and commitment to the program in all aspects of what we do. It’s going great.”

According to those in the know in wrestling circles, Robie has gotten off to a terrific start as the Hokies’ head coach. For starters, after getting the head job, he quickly added two stars as assistants.

Frank Molinaro, a 2012 national champion and four-time All-American at 149 pounds while at Penn State, came to Tech after serving as the volunteer assistant at his alma mater. Jared Frayer, a two-time All-American at 149 pounds while at Oklahoma, arrived in Blacksburg after working assistant stints at Harvard, Iowa, Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

Both Molinaro and Frayer have been Olympians. Frayer participated in the 2012 Olympics in London, while Molinaro competed at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro last year. With the addition of the duo, Tech became one of just three wrestling staffs nationally – Iowa and Penn State being the others – to feature two Olympians on the staff.

“They’re both great character guys, family guys, and hard workers who have earned all the success they’ve had,” Robie said. “They really fit the mold in terms of what I was looking for to bring onto the staff. Their success speaks for themselves in terms of what they’ve accomplished.”

Robie, his two assistants, and Tyler Graff, his director of performance, immediately put together a plan that gets the roster ready physically, while also preparing the athletes to wrestle their best toward the end of the season. Tech’s wrestlers traditionally peak around NCAA tournament time, which explains why the Hokies have finished in the top 11 for six consecutive seasons.

Yet this Tech team will feature a different flair, as the Hokies return just two seniors and lost four standouts off last year’s squad – Joey Dance (125 pounds), Sal Mastriani (157), Ty Walz (heavyweight) and Zach Epperly (174), who graduated and departed with a year of eligibility remaining. This quartet combined for eight All-America honors over their careers.

The Hokies certainly return some talent, led by two-time All-Americans Jared Haught and Solomon Chishko. But half of their 10 weight classes could feature newcomers and/or inexperienced wrestlers.

“It’s hard to replace All-Americans,” Robie admitted. “That’s just the way it is. That’s the situation we’re in, but we look forward to the challenge. We’ve got a lot of really good, young kids and a lot of talent in this [wrestling] room, and the commitment to success is as good as it’s ever been.”

With that said, here is a look at the 2017-18 Hokies starting with the lowerweights. Thursday will see a preview of the middleweights, Friday the upperweights:

125 pounds – Dance departed with 114 wins and three ACC championships in addition to being a two-time All-American. He won at least 28 matches in each of his four years, so he leaves behind quite the void.

Redshirt freshman Kyle Norstrem and junior Ryan Haskett stand ready to fill that void. Norstrem came in more highly decorated, having won five state championships at Brandon High School in Florida. Yet Haskett has worked himself into contention for the starting role.

“I would think one of those two guys would earn that spot,” Robie said. “Kyle was a bigger name coming out of high school, but Ryan has done a really good job. He’s a Virginia guy [Burke, Virginia] that has improved a lot in the past six months. I would anticipate seeing one of those guys.

“Our schedule at 125 is going to be tough – a lot of good guys coming in here that are highly ranked in the country with the teams we’re wrestling. So whoever ends up in that spot is going to have his work cut out for him and needs to be ready to roll.”

133 pounds – Dennis Gustafson returns after a redshirt junior season in which he went 21-8. He won the ACC title at 133 as a true freshman in 2014, and he finished third this past season. Robie expects him to be a contender for an ACC title and All-America recognition in his final year. Gustafson could follow the same path as that of Mastriani, who earned All-America honors for the first time his senior year.

“What Sal [Mastriani] was able to do last year as a fifth-year senior has motivated Dennis, and I think just having a guy like Tyler Graff [a four-time All-American at 133 pounds while at Wisconsin] to roll with has been able to help him with his wrestling and with his confidence in himself,” Robie said. “I expect a big year out of Dennis. He’s going to be a critical part of what we do. We need him to perform.”

Josh Baier, who won a state championship while at Cave Spring High in Roanoke, Virginia, entered the fall as the top backup at this weight class.

141 pounds – Things are up in the air for the Hokies at 141 pounds, as Robie knows he needs one of his younger wrestlers at this class to emerge. The contenders for the job include redshirt freshmen Brent Moore and Andrew Mehrholz, freshman Caden Darber and junior Brendan Ryan. Moore probably ranks as the favorite to win the job after going 26-6 while wrestling unattached during his redshirt season. Those 26 wins included nine pins.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys in there that are unproven, but if you had to say one guy is the favorite, it would have to be Brent Moore just from what he did last year as far as having some success,” Robie said. “What we’ve seen in the room, we’ve got to get his weight in a good place and get him to feeling good and wrestling well on a one-hour weigh-in. That’s his challenge.

“He’s a competitive and tough kid. It’s going to require discipline and a lot of work for him to maintain the weight and do it the right way. That’s his challenge. Not far behind him would be Andrew Mehrholz from [Deerfield] Illinois who redshirted last year. He’s a talented guy, and he’s going to be in the mix.”

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