Dec. 20, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- In the hierarchy of sports that fuel the passions of most Texans, wrestling is nowhere near the top. Jack Mueller was reminded of that as a senior at Trinity Christian Academy near Dallas.
In February, Mueller became only the 11th wrestler to win four National Prep titles. Back at school, though, the boys soccer team's state championship overshadowed his feat.
"But you just grow up with that," Mueller said, shrugging, "you don't wrestle for the glory. People just don't understand the sport. It's not about winning a Heisman Trophy or getting drafted in the first round with the first pick. It's all about heart and pride, because we don't really have that next level. We just want to win."
Mueller is well-versed in winning. In his first year at the University of Virginia, he's 10-0 and ranked No. 13 nationally at 125 pounds. Eight of his victories have resulted in bonus points: six technical falls, one pin and one major decision.
"It's incredible," UVA head coach Steve Garland said. "Our emphasis this year has been on scoring points, and he embodies that as well as or better than anybody on the team."
UVA's next dual meet is Wednesday night against George Mason University at St. Christopher's School in Richmond.
That Mueller is unusually polished for a freshman is no surprise. One of his older brothers, Keegan, wrestled at Ohio State and North Carolina. Moreover, Jack has trained with Kendall Cross for more than a decade, most recently at Trinity Christian Academy.
Cross, who captured an NCAA title as an Oklahoma State wrestler in 1989, won a gold medal at the Olympics in Atlanta seven years later.
"He's coached me since I was about 5 years old," Mueller said, "so he's really part of the family.
"I owe him so much. I don't know how to describe it. It's like reading an encyclopedia, picking his brain and learning stuff. It's not only learning moves at some points, it's learning how to learn moves."
Garland knows Cross, and they saw each other at a tournament a few years back. When Cross started talking about Mueller, Garland's interest was piqued.
"He said, `Hey, I've got this guy Jack. He's only in 10th grade, but this kid is for real. I know he's young, but you guys really need to get on him,' " Garland recalled.
"Jack was a huge recruit nationally. This was one of those situations where Virginia, being such a great academic institution and having such a good reputation down South, helped us get our foot in the door with Jack."
Mueller took an unofficial visit to UVA, and "we just fell in love with the family, and he fell in love with us," Garland said. "His family and I have a very similar background in terms of the stuff outside the wrestling room, and that helped getting us connected on a deeper level than just wrestling."
In September 2014, Mueller committed to UVA after also considering such schools as Michigan, North Carolina, Stanford, Northwestern, Lehigh and Duke.
His relationship with Garland gave Virginia an edge.
"It felt like he really, really cared about how everything was going, not only in wrestling but in my life," Mueller said. "He has that personality. He's really personable. I knew that he was someone that could help me always think about my goals, not only in wrestling but in life."
Mueller is part of a first-year class about which the always effusive Garland, who as a UVA senior in 2000 was NCAA runner-up at 125 pounds, is especially excited.
"Focus, discipline and consistency are the three pillars of our program, and it's amazing that these guys at their age have not only embraced it, but outside of our senior leadership team" -- George DiCamillo, Chris Yankowich, Will Mason and Andrew Atkinson -- "I would say the first-years are embodying it as well or better than anybody," Garland said.
"Typically a culture doesn't come from the bottom up, but this year our culture has been enhanced from the bottom up. Our young guys have pushed the older guys. They've demonstrated the right actions to some of the older guys. They've completely shown other classes that, hey, this is what looks like."
"As soon as we got here, we kind of all raised each other's level," Mueller said. "I think that it just so happened that we all had the same goal of being national champs and trying to graduate with the highest GPA we could and getting the best job we could [after college]. Everything we do, we try and do to the best of our abilities, and that's almost kind of a mutual agreement we've all had. I think that it's changed the level of the [wrestling] room for everyone, not just each other."
The freshmen remind him of former UVA great Nick Sulzer, Garland said, and that's high praise.
"They've brought more joy to my life this year than I've had in a very long time," Garland said. "Here's the thing: Nick, when he walked in the door, not only did I smile, but my kids smiled. He brought joy to our whole family. That's the type of kids these guys are."
Virtually all of the class will redshirt this season, and that was an option for Mueller too. When he arrived at UVA, in fact, he "wanted to redshirt," Mueller said.
"I was just a little nervous. I didn't know how well I could do. Everyone always talks about college wrestling like it's insane and so much different from high school wrestling. So I was really scared. But once Coach Garland started talking to me, I was like, `Whatever you choose, you're going to make the best choice for me, and I'm going to compete in the room like the next day is nationals.' "
Garland said: "I knew 100 percent that Jack was good enough to be in our lineup right away. There was no surprise there. It was just a matter of whether it was the right thing for him and the right thing for us. And what it came down to, and you always say this cliché, was this: Is he ready?"
Once the Cavaliers' coach saw the intensity with which Mueller competed, the answer was clear.
"You have to have a little bit of a mean streak in this sport," Garland said. "As nice as Jack is off the mat, and as great as his grades are and as sweet as he is -- he never gets in trouble -- this kid on the mat will absolutely put physical damage on other humans. I hate to call it a gift, but I think it's a gift in wrestling.
"And so we felt like that was the X-factor. Physically, he was ready and mature enough. Technically, he's beyond mature enough, because I think he's one of the best technical kids I've ever coached, and then it was just the perfect recipe. He's ready, and we need him, frankly."
Growing up, Mueller said, his favorite wrestler was Steve Mocco, who won NCAA heavyweight titles at Iowa and Oklahoma State.
"He kind of has a reputation of being really mean," Mueller said, "so I kind of developed that really early.
"You're not giving [the opponent] a break. I used to have this Russian coach. He'd say it in a weird accent: `We can be friends off the mat, but on the mat we're not friends.' That's always stuck with me."
His workouts with DiCamillo, a redshirt senior, help keep Mueller humble. A three-time ACC champion at 133 pounds, DiCamillo is ranked No. 10 nationally at 141 this season.
"He's not that much bigger, but he still crushes me," Mueller said. "It's great. It helps a ton."
At 125 pounds, Virginia Tech's Joey Dance is ranked No. 2 nationally, and Mueller figures to wrestle him at least once this season. For all of Mueller's early accomplishments at UVA, he knows stern challenges await him.
"The key for him is going to be two things: 1, not getting comfortable with the success and making sure you know you have to keep making gains; and 2, what you do if you have a setback, because there's going to be setbacks. It's not going to be perfect all the time like it is now," Garland said.
"Kendall Cross told him that too. It's how you respond when that happens. What are we going to do then? Are we going to lose our mind, or are we going to stay the course like you've been doing? It's very hard to go undefeated for four years in this sport. That's got to be the mindset, making sure that we're going to continue to focus on getting better."
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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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