The 37th annual Virginia Duals wrestling tournament will be held Friday and Saturday, January 13th and 14th, 2017, at the Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia. Eight years before the National Duals came into existence, John Graham started the Virginia Duals with just 12 teams across both the high school and college divisions. Graham would go on to start the National Duals in 1989. That event has evolved into something very different at the Division I level, but the Virginia Duals, other than showing significant growth, remains largely the same. This year 68 teams will compete across the five divisions, two college and three high school.
The National college division features the 12 Division I wrestling teams taking part in the event. Fourth-ranked Virginia Tech enters as the top seed followed by Oklahoma, #13 Arizona State, and #16 Virginia. Each of those four are expected to win their pools and earn their way into the gold bracket on Saturday. However, there are eight other teams looking to knock them off. You can find the brackets here and watch the action unfold on trackwrestling here.
Hampton River Pool
This pool should be ruled by Virginia Tech. Lock Haven and Kent State do not have the depth or front-line talent to match-up with the Hokies. The biggest story to watch is who Virginia Tech has in the line-up and where. David McFadden (165) is currently still redshirting, but Kevin Norstrem (141) made his return to the mat last weekend going 5-0 at the F&M Open. It appears we could see him at 141 while Dennis Gustafson works his way down to 133. Gustafson could have a good test against #20 Anthony Tutolo (Kent State) in the first match for the Hokies at 11 am on Friday if he is ready to go. We also don’t know yet whether number eight Sal Mastriani (157) will be back or if Ryan Blees will continue to fill-in.
James River Pool
Oklahoma is coming off of a huge upset over seventh-ranked Missouri on Sunday and is experiencing a line-up shift as well. Former JUCO national champ Yoanse Mejias (165) was in the starting line-up for the first time against the Tigers with Clark Glass, the ninth-ranked 165 in the country, working his way down to 157. Between that and the return of Matt Reed (174), this is a solid dual team that is worth keeping an eye on. Chattanooga and Old Dominion both could pose some problems for the Sooners in individual bouts, but they seem to lack the depth to make a serious upset bid. The lone caveat to that is if Brandon Jeske (125) and Emilio Saavedra (133) can return to the line-up and find the form they showed last season. If they can, Old Dominion could push the Sooners. For Oklahoma, Mejias will get a good measure of where he is when he faces #19 Seldon Wright (Old Dominion) while the Sooners will be underdogs in both duals at 184. Fifth-ranked Kevin Beazley (Old Dominion) should handle #19 Brad Johnson (Oklahoma) at 197 while #11 Jared Johnson (Chattanooga) will try to keep the experienced, but struggling, Ross Larson (Oklahoma) down.
Poquoson River Pool
Arizona State features five ranked wrestlers, but it is the other five, largely, who will define how far they will go in this tournament. Campbell may not have enough to challenge the Sun Devils, but Bucknell is ranked higher at three weights. If the Bison can swipe 125, 133, or 184, where Arizona State is not particularly strong, that one could get uncomfortable for the favorites. On the other hand, #14 Josh Shields (Arizona State) could take out #13 Victor Lopez (Bucknell) at 157 as Zeke Jones’ team rolls. Such are the vagueries of dual competition. Watch closely to see how well Arizona State performs on Friday. They will need to be at their best by Saturday.
York River Pool
The 1 pm Friday dual between North Dakota State and Virginia will likely decide this pool as both will be clear favorites over The Citadel. This tournament is formatted in such a way that pool champions are done after two duals on Friday while the other teams face a third dual to open their final bracket. While a third match in one day isn’t exactly new territory for wrestlers, having a nice break to prepare for the semi-finals, which are Saturday at 2 pm, would be a bonus. The Bison, yes, Bucknell and North Dakota State share a mascot, and Cavaliers both feature outstanding wrestlers at 125. However, fourth-ranked Josh Rodriguez (North Dakota State) and eighth-ranked Jack Mueller (Virginia) are entering this contest under very different circumstances. Rodriguez is a senior with 90 career wins and two NCAA tournament appearances, but he doesn’t always get to see top-flight competition. Mueller is a true freshman who has a 15-1 career record and finished second at the Southern Scuffle. Whoever takes that match will give their team a big leg up in getting through to the gold bracket.
Because teams who are in the same conference are separated when possible, Virginia Tech and Virginia will not meet until the finals. The same will apply for Oklahoma and North Dakota State if they both make it through. This makes Virginia Tech/Arizona State and Oklahoma/Virginia the likely semifinals if the seeds hold. If North Dakota State knocks off Virginia, it should be Virginia Tech/NDSU and Oklahoma/Arizona State.
Virginia Tech would be a heavy favorite in either of those duals. A match-up with Arizona State would set up a number one versus number two showdown between Zahid Valencia (Arizona State) and Zach Epperly (Virginia Tech). Valencia is an undefeated freshman who has staked his claim as one of the best at this weight. Epperly famously lost in the first round at NCAAs a year ago, then ran all the way back through the bracket to finish third. The Hokie junior has been excellent this season, with an 8-0 record including wins over number seven and number eight. Arizona State badly needs this match to keep hope alive. They also would need fifth-ranked Tanner Hall (285) to upset third-ranked Ty Walz. Walz is 3-0 against Hall in college. Expect Virginia Tech to advance to the finals.
The other semi-final looks to be much tighter. The Hoos should take 125 and 141. With a toss-up at 133, the Sooners could find themselves in a hole early. The key to this match is what happens next. Davion Jeffries (Oklahoma) looks to have turned a corner recently and is wrestling well at 149. If Clark Glass (Oklahoma) is down to 157, his bout with ninth-ranked Andrew Atkinson (Virginia) could go either way. If its Barnes for the Sooners, he could still pull the upset, but Virginia would be the clear favorite. Halfway through, this one could be four matches to one for Steve Garland’s squad or three to two for Lou Rosselli’s crew without a big upset having occurred.
The next three bouts don’t do much to clarify which team is the favorite. The Sooners like Yoanse Mejias (165), but it is hard to say exactly how good he is. Ray Bethea (Virginia) is a solid opponent for him. At 174, Matt Reed (Oklahoma) should be favored if history is any indication, but he got pinned by Dylan Wisman (Missouri) in his first, and only, match at the weight this season. 184 pits a couple of wrestlers with sub-.500 records against each other. The Sooners should close out the dual with a pair of victories and Ross Larson (285) is a pinner. If they are within nine on the scoreboard after 184, they have a chance. Virginia could have the dual wrapped up by then or trail. This one could have many twists and turns.
With one semi-final so tough to call, it is difficult to predict the final. Regardless, Virginia Tech will be tough to beat. If it’s Virginia, a Joey Dance (Virginia Tech)/Mueller battle would be informative. If Norstrem gets the call, he would face a tough test in seventh-ranked George DiCamillo (Virginia). If Mastriani returns, he and Atkinson would square off in a top-10 battle. Virginia Tech would be heavily favored from 174 to 285. If the Sooners face the Hokies, Jeffries/Chishko is intriguing if only to see if Jeffries can start knocking off highly-ranked opponents again like he did early last season. Glass and Mejias would need to win at 157 and 165 while Virginia Tech would probably still run off victories at the last four weights without too much trouble.
In the end, the only top-10 team in the field should get the job done as expected. If they bring their best line-up, they could do so in style. Even if the Hokies are missing a starter or two, their overall talent and depth should be too much for this field.