National champion Mekhi Lewis at the 2022 NCAA Tournament (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
The Hokies are coming off a top-10 finish in Detroit at the NCAA Championships and they have put together a strong lineup to make a run at ACC and NCAA titles this season. While they only lose two starters to graduation, the lineup will have a different look with weight changes and redshirts. They will be anchored by NCAA Champion and two-time finalist Mekhi Lewis and Bryce Andonian is coming off a third-place finish in Detroit. Coach Robie and company are building a top-tier program in Blacksburg and will be challenging the returning ACC Champions NC State for their place atop the conference.
The Hokies return four wrestlers who have earned All-American honors--the team added a ninth straight season of having three or more All-Americans last year.
Sam Latona was an All-American at 125 in 2021 and dropped in the bloodround last year; he will look to add another podium finish up a weight class at 133. I expect a lot of firepower out of Latona at a more comfortable weight.
Bryce Andonian will also be moving up a weight to 157. He made a huge impression on the national audience last year at the NCAA tournament showcasing his big-move ability in matches against Austin Gomez and Jon Millner. Andonian lost a heartbreaker to Ridge Lovett in the semifinals 5-4, but came back to place third in a second wild match against Gomez. Like Latona, weight management took up a lot of time for Andonian last season and he should be able to be even more wide open--kinda scary--at the higher weight.
Mekhi Lewis has competed in three NCAA tournaments and only has one loss in matches he actually wrestled. Lewis ran through the gauntlet of Alex Marinelli, Evan Wick and Vincenzo Joseph to win the NCAA Championship in 2019. His 2021 tournament was shortened by injury; he gutted out two wins before medically defaulting. Last season he put together another impressive postseason performance. He beat Hayden Hidlay and Clay Lautt to win the ACC championship before making a run at the NCAA tournament. He beat Lautt again in the quarterfinals and pinned Logan Massa in the semifinals to create the much-anticipated matchup with Carter Starocci in the finals. This match was one of the best of the entire tournament, unfortunately, Mekhi fell short losing 6-5 in TB1. Lewis will have an opportunity to avenge this loss early this season, as he faces Starocci in an exhibition match at the All-Star Classic.
Hunter Bolen decided this summer to return for one last ride at 184. Bolen is a four-time NCAA qualifier and earned All-American status in 2021 with a 7th place finish. While Bolen put together a good season last year, he is returning with a hunger to end his career on a higher note and has high expectations for himself this year.
While the Hokies only lose two starters to graduation, Korbin Myers and Nathan Traxler, they are big shoes to fill. Myers was a five-time NCAA qualifier and a two-time All-American while winning two ACC titles for the Hokies. Traxler, and his luxurious head of hair, was a one-year starter for the Hokies after transferring from Stanford. He won an ACC title while putting together an impressive 21-4 season, falling in the round of 16 at the NCAA tournament.
Cooper Flynn and Eddie Ventresca are both redshirt freshmen and will be in a battle for the starting spot at 125. Both had 15 wins in their redshirt campaign and won at least one open tournament. It is very possible that both will get time in the starting lineup and the final decision will be made based on their performance in competition.
Hunter Catka returns to the starting spot at 285 after taking a redshirt year while Traxler manned the spot. Catka was an NCAA qualifier in 2021 and had a solid 10-6 redshirt year with two close losses to NCAA qualifier Taye Ghadiali of Campbell and split matches with NCAA qualifier Tyrie Houghton of NC State.
Drew Nicholson is a grad transfer from Chattanooga where he was a SoCon Champ and two-time NCAA qualifier. He will be fighting for the starting spot at 165 with Connor Brady--the final decision at this weight will impact the redshirt status of Brady.
WRESTLER TO WATCH
Caleb Henson comes into Blacksburg with high expectations and an impressive resume that includes being a 3-time Georgia State Champion, Fargo Junior Freestyle Champion and Super32 Champion. He will immediately be thrown into the fire in Blacksburg. Henson is set to be the starter at 149 as a true freshman and will face an incredible run of talent in out-of-conference duals. Henson will face four top-10 wrestlers in out-of-conference action. He is set to face #3 Sammy Sasso, #1 Yianni Diakomihalis, #5 Brock Mauller and #10 Jaden Abas. Henson doesn't enter the year in the rankings as a true freshman, but he will certainly have the chance to make himself a household name quickly.
The Hokies brought in a small but very talented recruiting class this year with three wrestlers ranked in the top 100. #16 Caleb Henson will be starting from day one, but #8 TJ Stewart and #81 Tom Crook will likely take a redshirt year. I'm very interested to see how they are used with the five â€œfree datesâ€ that they can compete attached. Both Stewart and Crook have the skills to compete for a starting spot, but will benefit from a year of growth in the room.
TOP OUT-OF-CONFERENCE DUAL
The Hokies have set up an incredibly challenging out-of-conference slate that will see them facing #3 Missouri, #4 Ohio State and #6 Cornell before ACC action begins in mid-January. All three of these duals will be amazing and feature ranked-versus-ranked matchups up and down the lineup. While all three of these duals should be fire, I'm most looking forward to seeing the first dual of the year with #4 Ohio State. Their matchup last year ended 17-13 in favor of the Buckeyes in a back-and-forth dual in Blacksburg. This year's event will potentially showcase these matches and will be a must-watch dual.
125: #28 Ventresca/Flynn vs #11 Malik Heinselman
149: Henson vs #3 Sammy Sasso
157: #5 Andonian vs #22 Paddy Gallagher
174: #2 Lewis vs #6 Ethan Smith
184: #11 Bolen vs #4 Kaleb Romero
125: #28 Eddie Ventresca (15-6) 1st Southeast Open 8th Southern Scuffle
Cooper Flynn (15-3) 2nd Southeast Open 1st Wolfpack Open 1st David Lehman Open
133: #14 Sam Latona (14-6) NCAA All-American (6th in 2021) ACC Champ 2x ACC Finalist
141: #25 Collin Gerardi (12-11) 2x NCAA Qualifier
149: Caleb Henson (4-0) True freshman-won Southeast Open as a high school senior
157: #5 Bryce Andonian (13-4) NCAA 3rd Place 3x NCAA Qualifier
Clayton Ulrey (13-11) 2x NCAA Qualifier
165: #33 Drew Nicholson (17-8) SOCON Champ 2x NCAA Qualifier at UTC
Connor Brady (16-14 at 157)
174: #2 Mekhi Lewis (24-2) NCAA Champ 2x NCAA Finalist 2x ACC Champ Jr. World Champ
184: #11 Hunter Bolen (23-7) NCAA All-American (7th in 2021) 4x NCAA Qualifier
Sam Fisher (6-3)
197: #30 Dakota Howard (13-10) NCAA Qualifier
Andy Smith (9-4)
285: #19 Hunter Catka (10-6) NCAA Qualifier in 2021