March 9, 2014
BLACKSBURG -- Near the end of a long, long day at Virginia Tech's Cassell Coliseum, two wrestlers from the University of Virginia were crowned ACC champions Saturday night: 157-pounder Blaise Butler and 165-pounder Nick Sulzer.
That Sulzer triumphed this year was no surprise to anyone who saw him wrestle in 2012-13, when he placed eighth at the NCAA championships to earn All-America honors.
But Butler, a redshirt sophomore from Belvidere, Ill., wasn't even in the Cavaliers' starting lineup last season. He backed up Jedd Moore, who was ACC runner-up at 157 as a senior in 2013.
"What a great story," Virginia coach Steve Garland said. "It sounds so cliché, but Blaise is the kid that does everything right. He's one of the last guys to leave the wrestling room. He's never shied away from competition. He picks out the hardest guys in the room to work out with day in and day out."
One of those guys is Sulzer, a redshirt junior from Cleveland who's ranked No. 2 nationally at 165 pounds. He was seeded No. 1 at 165 pounds, as Butler was at 157.
"Everyone [in the UVa program] knew how good Blaise was," Sulzer said, "and being able to work out with him every day has helped me tremendously, always having a partner that's willing to go the extra mile for me, and I'm willing to go the extra mile for him. It's just been a joy to watch him wrestle."
The first half of last season, Butler said Saturday night, "was pretty tough, but by the end of the season I came into my role, which was just making Jedd the best that he could be and [preparing for] this year."
Butler edged NC State's Tommy Gantt 3-2 in the final Saturday night.
If he had doubts about his ability to compete with the conference's, and the nation's, best wrestlers, Butler said, they vanished by the start of this season.
"If you had asked me last year, it might have been a little different," he said, "but I've gained a lot of confidence throughout the past year, and it's come through wrestling guys like Sulzer every day and wrestling guys like Jedd, who's still in the room, just making me the best that I can be."
Sulzer took third in the ACC at 165 pounds as a redshirt freshman in 2012, then improved one place last season.
"For me to see him finally get one of his goals that he's been striving for, for so long, is pretty cool," Garland said. "I've known him since he was in the eighth grade, so that one was extra special for me. I just love the kid."
Unlike many of his fellow ACC champions, Sulzer showed little emotion Saturday night at match's end. He dominated North Carolina's John Staudenmayer from the start en route to a 7-1 victory.
"It definitely means a lot to me, but the thing is not being content," Sulzer said. "I'm going back to the drawing board, figuring out what I did right in these matches, what I did wrong, and always building for NCAAs, the greater goal."
Sulzer expects to perform well, and "that's why I don't really celebrate [after victories]," he said. "But I really wish we would have brought home the team title. That was always in the back of my mind, and it kind of hurts a little bit."
Pittsburgh was the favorite heading into its first ACC tournament, but the day belonged to the host school. The Hokies, buoyed by the return of their All-American 141-pounder, Devin Carter, piled up 87 points to run away with their second straight ACC championship.
"They just wrestled fantastic," Garland said. "I can't remember a tournament being this [one-sided] before. Obviously they made a statement. We were able to beat them during the year [in a dual meet], but we certainly didn't outwrestle them today."
Pitt (67 points) finished second, followed by Virginia (61.5). North Carolina (38) was fourth, Maryland (37.5) fifth, NC State (33.5) sixth and Duke (18) seventh.
In addition to its two champions, UVa had two runners-up: senior Stephen Doty at 174 pounds and redshirt sophomore Zach Nye at 197. Nye upended the No. 1 seed, Maryland's Christian Boley, in the semifinals. Redshirt junior Gus Sako, the No. 1 seed at 149, fell in the semifinals but came back to take third.
In all, seven Cavaliers qualified for the NCAA tournament with their performances Saturday: Butler, Sulzer, Doty, Nye, Sako, Herrmann, Fausey and redshirt junior Joe Spisak, who took fifth place at 141 pounds.
Fausey, who won the ACC's 184-pound title in 2012, is only the sixth fourth-time NCAA qualifier in program history.
The day left Garland, a UVa alumnus, with mixed emotions. The Wahoos, ACC runners-up in 2012 and '13, came to Blacksburg ranked No. 17 nationally by InterMat and primed to pursue their first conference title since 2010.
"We had a great regular season," Garland said. "What happened today doesn't take away from how awesome of a season we had. However, it still hurts.
"We've been striving for this since August 25th, and it hurts. We definitely didn't wrestle the way we should have, but it doesn't take away from Blaise Butler and Nick Sulzer, and Zach Nye beating Boley, and what Doty's been able to do. We're celebrating those guys, but we're also understanding that we have work to do, and today wasn't good enough."
The first-round matches started at 10 a.m. Saturday, and the finals didn't end until around 9:30 p.m.
"It's about as exhausting an event as you could have," Garland said. "It's not rocket science, but it's physically and emotionally and mentally taxing, and I'm spent right now."
The NCAA tournament will be held March 20-22 in Oklahoma City, Okla.
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