Virginia Tech Wrestling 2017-18 Preview: Upperweights

BLACKSBURG - To get fans prepared for No. 9 Virginia Tech’s home and season opener against No. 21 Stanford on Saturday at 1:30 p.m., Inside Hokie Sports’ Jimmy Robertson put together previews for each weight class. Here’s Tech’s outlook in the upperweights:

174 pounds – Tech’s staff faces a little uncertainty at this weight class, as it tries to replace Zach Epperly. The competition for the starting nod really comes down to two wrestlers – redshirt sophomore Cody Hughes and freshman Hunter Bolen.

Hughes took a redshirt season last year, but went 15-8 in limited action as a true freshman two years ago. Bolen, from nearby Christiansburg, ranked as one of the top recruits in the nation. He won three state titles in his career, but perhaps more impressively, won the 160-pound crown at the prestigious Beast of the East tournament this past December.

“Cody has been in the program for two years, and he’s been a guy that is consistent with his work ethic and his effort,” head coach Tony Robie said. “He’s steadily and quietly improved over the course of the past two years. He seems to be the guy that I would have to pinpoint as the favorite.

“Hunter Bolen is right there with him. There is a possibility that Hunter redshirts this year. We’ll have to see how things progress over the course of the next several weeks, but those are the two top guys at 174.”

184 pounds – Tech lacks depth in this weight class, but it returns a stalwart in Zack Zavatsky, a two-time ACC champion entering his redshirt junior season. Zavatsky went 25-4 last season and qualified for the NCAA Championships, though he missed on earning All-America honors.

“He’s coming off two seasons when he had good regular seasons, but had some disappointments at the NCAA tournament,” Robie said. “There is no other way to say it. But Zack is incredibly talented and has proven that he can wrestle with the best guys in the country. To me, he’s a top-four guy [nationally], and that’s what he’s got to do. That’s what he has to prove when he steps out there in March. He knows that. We know that. Everyone who has watched him wrestle knows how good he is.”

Freshman Stan Smeltzer, a two-time state champion from Smithfield, Virginia, serves as the backup.

197 pounds – Jared Haught returns to the Hokies’ lineup as the team leader and a threat to win an NCAA title. A year ago, he advanced to the semifinals at this weight class before losing to Olympic bronze medalist J’Den Cox of Missouri – who ultimately went on to win the national title. Cox, though, graduated, along with runner-up Brett Pfarr from Minnesota, so Haught certainly has an opportunity. The two-time All-American went 28-4 last season.

“It’s pretty obvious what the goal is for him,” Robie said. “He’s got to set his sights on winning the national title, and he certainly has. We’re excited to watch him compete. It’s on for Jared. He’s got a chance to be a three-time All-American and a national champion and the most successful wrestler to come through Virginia Tech. That’s exciting.

“I know he’s excited. Nobody works harder than that guy, and nobody is tougher than that guy. He’s chomping at the bit to get back out there.”

Redshirt sophomore Dylan Cook and freshman John Borst went into the fall as backups behind Haught. Cook took a redshirt year last season, while Borst finished his career as a three-time state champion at Sherando High in Sherando, Virginia.

Heavyweight – Perhaps no loss on Tech’s roster looms bigger than that of Walz, who served as the heart and soul of the program the past two years. Walz concluded his career as a three-time All-American, twice finishing fourth. He went 26-4 last season and won at least 26 matches in all four years of his career.

The frontrunner to replace Walz is Andrew Dunn, a redshirt freshman from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

“I’m excited to see him compete,” Robie said. “It’s truly difficult to gauge these guys based on what you see every day in practice. You know what they’re putting into it, but I want to see him compete, and hopefully that optimism I have for Andrew right now carries over, and we see that as a finished product when he steps out on the mat.

“He’s a freshman. He’s going to have some good moments and bad moments. That’s a part of being young, but he’s proven to me that wrestling is important to him, and he’s willing to commit himself to it. He’s really done a good job of attaching himself to Ty Walz and training with Ty [who is helping this season] and trying to absorb everything that Ty brings to the table.”

Brooks Wilding goes into the season as the backup. Wilding used to wrestle at 184 and 197, but bulked up to give the Hokies some depth at heavyweight.

Tech opens the season Nov. 4 against Stanford, and that marks the start of a difficult slate. In addition to playing Stanford, the Hokies take on quality programs such as Chattanooga and Central Michigan, along with Missouri, which heads into the season ranked No. 5 nationally.

On the ACC level, NC State figures to be the frontrunner, as it returns a lot of its lineup and gets a couple of guys back from redshirt seasons. Virginia and North Carolina also will be tough, and Pittsburgh, under a new coach, could make things interesting.

Tech may not be picked to win the ACC, but Robie and this staff like this group. The coaches like the combination of experience, youth and talent – and they welcome the challenge of proving people wrong.

After all, this is a proud program. This group only knows one thing – winning – and the players and coaches plan on doing just that.

“When you look at how our team sets up, there is going to be a learning curve, with so many young guys and so many new faces in the lineup,” Robie said. “It’s going to be difficult to duplicate what we did the past two years, but I still think we have a very good team. We have some great individuals. We have some really good young kids that can do some great things. So I’m excited about that.”

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