June 11, 2018
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- In his first season as a University of Virginia wrestler, Jack Mueller placed sixth in the 125-pound weight class at the NCAA championships. Had he not gotten hurt during his semifinal loss, Mueller might well have placed higher, but the injury forced him to bow out of the tournament.
Still, he left St. Louis having earned All-America status as a true freshman, a feat most would consider cause for celebration.
Mueller? He was almost inconsolable in the spring of 2017.
"Last year after NCAAs he was so depressed that he didn't win it," UVA head coach Steve Garland recalled. "He had such high expectations that he crashed. He crashed and he couldn't get out of it. I'm not kidding you, it was a good month, month and a half, where he was just down. He didn't enjoy practice and had his head down in the locker room."
A year later, Mueller has learned to better handle disappointment, and that has him in a much better place.
At the NCAA championships in Cleveland, Mueller lost on March 16 in the round of 12, a defeat that kept him from repeating as an All-American. Three days later, he was back in Charlottesville, running sprints on the treadmill.
His spirits were high, and his competitive fires were stoked.
"I know that God has a plan for me, and so one bad tournament's not going to define who I am," said Mueller, a graduate of Trinity Christian Academy in the Dallas suburb of Addison, Texas.
"I would like to think that deep down I'm a winner. Maybe I didn't do all the right things this year, but I'm not going to let that happen again."
That perseverance paid off for him this month. In Akron, Ohio, at the trials for USA Wrestling's freestyle U23 world team, Mueller went 7-0 to win the 57-kilogram (125.7-pound) class.
"It's the most focused I've ever seen him," said Garland, an assistant coach on the U.S. team. "Instead of letting NCAAs affect him again, he did the exact opposite. He said, `That's done, and here's where I'm going with it. Here's mentally how I'm going to approach it, here's physically how I'm going to approach it.' It's just been a bright light as opposed to being a dark cloud."
After posting a 27-5 record in 2016-17, Mueller went 24-7 at 133 pounds as a sophomore. But he had to deal with one obstacle after another in 2017-18.
An ankle injury sidelined Mueller during the preseason. Then, in his second match of the season, he suffered a concussion that kept him out of the lineup for two weeks.
When he returned to the mat, Mueller wrestled well, placing third at the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas in early December.
In January, however, he hurt the lateral collateral ligament in one knee and then in the other. He later suffered a stinger in his neck and then came down with a bad case of the flu.
After defeating Duke's Josh Finesilver on Feb. 3, Mueller didn't wrestle again until the ACC tournament a month later. In the third period of the 133-pound final, against Virginia Tech's Dennis Gustafson, Mueller surrendered a late lead and lost 10-7.
At the NCAA tournament, he posted a 3-2 record, exiting with a 16-7 loss to fourth-seeded Kaid Brock of Oklahoma State.
When he looks back on 2017-18, Mueller said, "I wish I could do the whole season differently and tell myself the mindset I needed to have, how hard I needed to train. I just didn't do it.
"I think that I was still [so] upset about not winning freshman year, that I carried it over into my sophomore year. It was a real downer for myself, a real downer for the team and Coach Garland. I just hate letting people down, and I feel like I did that [in 2017-18]."
Garland, who's heading into his 13th season as head coach at his alma mater, dismissed the idea that Mueller did not work hard enough as a UVA sophomore.
"He was never healthy," Garland said. "One thing people don't realize is how much those injuries take a toll on you."
That said, Garland acknowledged that Mueller entered the offseason this year in a much better frame of mind.
"He had a great attitude," Garland said. "He was smiling every week. He was putting in the extra work. He was doing extra technique. He was running extra, lifting extra. He got his diet right."
In Akron, Mueller defeated Wisconsin's Ethan Rotondo 10-0 in the round of 16. That set up a quarterfinal clash with Louie Hayes, one of Mueller's training partners at UVA. As a redshirt freshman in 2017-18, Hayes started at 125 pounds for the Cavaliers and fell just short of All-America honors, losing in the round of 12 at the NCAA tournament.
Mueller edged Hayes 8-5 to advance to the semifinals at the U23 trials.
"It was so awkward," Mueller said. "That was not a great match for me. I just was frozen the whole time. I've always hated wrestling my own teammates. Especially Louie. He feels like family, so it was just awkward the whole time."
In the semifinals, Mueller beat Lehigh's Brandon Paetzell 11-0. In the final, under a best-of-three format, Mueller defeated Michigan State's Rayvon Foley 8-6 in the first match and 11-0 in the second to secure his spot on the U.S. team.
"There were some matches where I wrestled really well [in Akron] and then there were some matches that I could improve on," Mueller said. "For the most part, it was just cashing in, because I've been working so hard since nationals, and I felt like I deserved it."
The U.S. team will gather in Colorado next month for a training camp, Garland said. The U23 world championships will be held in November in Bucharest, Romania.
"I've never been to Europe," Mueller said, "so I'm pretty excited."
He's also pumped about the Cavaliers' prospects for next season, though he said he's not sure at which weight class he'll compete. In 2017-18, the Wahoos posted a 4-10 record in dual meets and then placed fifth at the six-team ACC tournament. (They finished 31st at the NCAA championships.)
"Garland pulled us in pretty quickly after and was like, `That was the worst season I've ever had,' " Mueller recalled. "That hurts. That hurts for all of us.
"That definitely lit a fire under me, and I know [UVA's other wrestlers] are also pretty fired up about that. So I think we're going to be coming with a vengeance next season."
At the U23 trials, 12 wrestlers from UVA competed. Among those who stood out were Hayes at 57 kg, Brian Courtney and Sam Krivus at 65 kg (143.3 pounds), Jake Keating at 70 kg (154.3 pounds), and Tyler Love at 92 kg (202.8 pounds).
"It was awesome," Garland said of his wrestlers' collective performance.
None, of course, shined brighter in Akron than Mueller, who plans to carry at double major in religious studies and economics at UVA. He's been vacationing with his family in Florida, but he'll be back at UVA soon to take summer-school classes and to train.
"I'm locked in," Mueller said. "The goal right now is being a world champ."
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Director of News Content
A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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