Storybook ending for Tech at ACC Wrestling Championship

ACC Championship
Virginia Tech 81.0

By Jimmy Robertson

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Virginia Tech fans, alums, coaches and players reference the athletics department’s marketing slogan “This is Home” with regularity, and for sure, Blacksburg is a rather cool place to be.

But those affiliated with the Virginia Tech wrestling team are getting quite comfortable in the Tar Heel state. Tony Robie – he of the Northeastern background, mind you – and his bunch are finding sweet tea, barbecue, and NASCAR much to their liking these days.

For the second straight year, Robie’s program marched into the Tar Heel state, grabbed the ACC Championship trophy and hoisted it high into the air in what is becoming a regular occurrence. On a glorious Saturday at historic Carmichael Arena – the place where Michael Jordan used to play – the Hokies bested NC State yet again, winning the ACC tournament title for the fourth time, and combined with their three dual meet championships, now hold claim to seven ACC titles.

Robie, as many may remember, did this same thing a year ago. The Hokies – the Cadillac of ACC wrestling – needed a driver after Kevin Dresser’s departure to Iowa State, and Robie got behind the wheel on an interim basis, guiding a veteran squad to Raleigh, where the Hokies dominated to claim the crown.

This time around, though, he held the keys to the Cadillac – and deftly, perhaps surprisingly, steered a lineup with five freshmen down Championship Boulevard yet again.

“We felt good about it coming in,” Robie said. “We really, really did. I felt like if we went out and wrestled up to our abilities, we had a very, very good chance of winning this thing. So not really surprised, but happy with the effort for the most part. We had guys that were scrapping.”

For sure, Robie’s guys sent the message early, as seven of them made it to the finals of their respective weight classes. More importantly, three knocked out Wolfpack wrestlers, thus hobbling NC State’s chances.

The finals wound up being a perfect representation of symmetry for Robie and the Hokies. A senior started it the right way, youngsters came up big, another senior polished it off, and the first-year head coach collected the crown

Dennis Gustafson set the tone at 133 pounds, coming from behind to beat UVA’s Jack Mueller. He won an ACC title as a freshman, but then battled injuries and inconsistency for three years. Saturday night, he reached the ultimate destination, recording a takedown and four near fall points with less than a minute to go to win.

“I mean, there were times when I thought I couldn’t do it, but the coaches kept telling me, ‘You’re awesome. You’re great. You can beat anybody,’” Gustafson of his career. “And now, the confidence is there. Everything is there. I’m wrestling well, and that’s really all the matters. In the end, you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do.”

“His focus has been really, really good all year, and I think that’s why he won that match tonight,” Robie said. “He was able to dial in and focus. He wrestles really hard, and you throw it out there and you stay offensive, good things typically happen.”

Great things actually happened at 141 pounds, as Brent Moore had Hokie Nation buzzing with arguably one of the biggest upsets in the nation this year. Moore’s overtime takedown of NC State’s Kevin Jack in the 141-pound bout reverberated throughout the building – and maybe nationally. After all, Jack entered the matched ranked No. 5 in the country in this weight class.

No one even considered this outcome considering Jack’s whipping of Moore, a redshirt freshman, 15-0 in the teams’ dual match in Raleigh just two weeks ago.

“I knew I wrestled stupid,” Moore admitted of the loss. “It was my own fault more than it was him being better than me. If anything, it took the pressure off. I mean, nobody expected me to go out there and beat that kid … It feels awesome.”

Tech’s Ryan Blees lost a close one to UNC’s Troy Heilmann at 149 pounds, but redshirt sophomore David McFadden continued his excellence at 165 pounds, dominating Duke’s Zach Finesilver 22-9. The bonus points pushed the Tech bulge to 78-70 in the team race, while he remained perfect at 31-0 this season.

“At this point, I’m not surprised,” McFadden said. “What the coaches have done for me and our team culture is great. Coach Robie told me I was going to lead this team, and it’s an honor to lead Virginia Tech, so I knew it was like, ‘OK, let’s go.’”

Zack Zavatsky then lost a close one to NC State’s Pete Renda, setting up the showdown of the night between the Hokies’ Jared Haught – ranked No. 1 nationally at 197 pounds – and NC State’s Michael Macchiavello, who came in at No. 3 nationally. Haught, a fifth-year senior, only needed to avoid a pin or technical fall to give the Hokies the team title.

“I’ll put my money on that guy every day of the week,” Robie said of his star.

Haught, maybe the only college student in America never to drink even a sip of alcohol, engaged in an exhausting brawl with Macchiavello, darn near literally. The two of them emptied the tank, with the gas light on and feverishly blinking, going to five overtime periods.

In the midst of both fan bases screaming for stalls – quite common on this evening – a gassed Haught somehow got a reversal and pulled off a wild 6-4 win in his final ACC match. That sealed the Hokies fourth title in six years.

It only seemed fitting. Haught, a two-time All-American and two-time ACC champion, has become the standard bearer for this program, particularly with his work ethic and toughness. His teammates look to him, and Saturday night, he delivered yet again.

“It wasn’t pretty by no means,” Haught said. “I know my dad is going to have something to say about it, but I just kept fighting, and just seeing that fight work and pay off and being able to hold that team trophy is so great. Words can’t describe it.”

The evening belonged to Haught. It belonged to Gustafson. And Moore and McFadden. It belonged to the sea of maroon and orange who made another pilgrimage to North Carolina to see their beloved raise another trophy. Such things never age.

The evening also belonged to Robie, who perfect maneuvered this team – his team – into position after a bitter 19-15 loss to the Wolfpack in Raleigh two weeks ago. Rather than yell and scream at his team and schedule more practice, he and his staff took the opposite approach, strongly encouraging, calmly coaching and staying true to their philosophy.

“I try to keep my composure, for the most part,” Robie said, with a smile. “I was a little bit mad that night [in Raleigh]. But I thought our effort was good, and to me, that’s all we preach. It’s all about giving great effort every time you step on the mat, giving great effort every minute you’re out there, and that’s what our guys were able to do tonight. If you consistently do that, you got a better chance of getting your hand raised.”

For sure, on Saturday night in the Tar Heel state, every Hokie wrestler and coach could be seen raising his hands. In victory. And usually, with that championship trophy in them.

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