In the last year, the argument could be made that no Virginia Tech team has had more success than Tony Robie’s wrestling squad. Fresh off of the program’s first individual National Champion in Mekhi Lewis, expectations for this season were high. Could David McFadden become the program’s first four-time All-American? Could Lewis make the Olympic team? Could Hunter Bolen win the second National Championship in a row for the Hokies? All of these questions were about to be answered, but now, we’ll never know thanks to COVID-19.
How Did the Team Find Out and Handle the COVID-19 Situation?
March 12, 2020 will be a day that no wrestler or coach will ever forget. The Hokies were just four days removed from the ACC Championships after finishing fifth as a team. They were eager to get back on the mat to try and end the season with an exclamation point at the NCAA Championships. However, the eight Hokies who qualified would not get that chance.
As many recall the whirlwind of that day, there was so much happening in the world of sports. With the NBA postponing its season the night before, there was a lot of pressure on the NCAA to do something as a result of the Coronavirus. That prompted Coach Robie and his staff to call for a team meeting that Thursday at 4:15 pm.
“It had come out that the ACC was not going to participate in the winter championship,” said Robie. “There was just so much information coming out so quickly from different sources. We scheduled a meeting so we can sit down and talk with our team about exactly what was going on.”
Minutes before that meeting took place, the news broke that the NCAA made a statement on Twitter that the championships were cancelled. It was Robie and Senior Associate Athletic Director Chris Helms who broke the news to the team and let them know the situation. The meeting lasted 10-15 minutes.
“It was obviously a very emotional, difficult meeting,” said Robie. “With the exception of when Darren Hankins died [in 2014], [it was] the most difficult meeting we’ve had as a team. It was tough.”
Robie noted how the pandemic is a lot bigger than the wrestling and sports world. He and his team often discuss control and what they can control.
“I thought, for the most part, our guys handled it really well. There were some guys who were pretty emotional and pretty disappointed, especially the guys that were seniors with their last chance,” said Robie.
When recapping this unusual situation that he endured with his team, Robie used three words to describe it: difficult, strange and surreal.
“It was one of those moments where you never really thought something like this could happen and then it does. Then, it’s hard to process and it’s hard to get your mind and your arms around it to really get a grasp on what just happened,” said Robie.
Impact of the 2020 Senior Class
One of the seniors who won’t get the chance to wrestle in a Hokie singlet for the final time is David McFadden. He finished his collegiate career with a record of 107-22, became the first wrestler in program history to become a freshman All-American, but was robbed this year of the chance to become the only Hokie to claim All-American status in all four years.
“David’s done a ton of things for our program. When you look at his list of accomplishments, it’s pretty impressive,” said Robie. “I think that everybody that has followed Hokies Wrestling for the last five years understands his contribution to the program and what he’s brought to the table for us. It was definitely a real positive experience with David here at Virginia Tech.”
When reflecting on the impact this year’s senior class leaves behind, the third-year head coach noted how they were a part of a transition from coach Kevin Dresser, who left for Iowa State in 2017, to Robie, who was elevated from assistant to head coach.
“There was a lot of changes during their time here at Virginia Tech, to say the least. These guys did a really good job of helping us usher in our staff, all the changes that took place and really helped us maintain the continuity of success that we had previously with the old staff,” said Robie. “I’m really proud that they were a part of that and grateful that they made that transition as smooth as possible.”
What Could Have Been for Hunter Bolen
Hunter Bolen wasted no time getting acclimated to collegiate wrestling as a freshman in the 2017-2018 season. Known by many as the “Christiansburg Cowboy”, he finished year one with a record of 21-12, qualified for the NCAA Tournament and was named ACC Freshman of the Year.
Despite the strong campaign, Robie and his staff decided to redshirt Bolen for the 2018-2019 season. He proceeded to make plenty of headlines wrestling unattached, as The Open Mat named him as one of the top redshirt wrestlers in the country. Bolen went 13-1 and his lone loss was to Shakur Rasheed of Penn State, an All-American in 2017.
“Hunter came off that redshirt season and I think as a staff, we all knew that he made huge improvements with his wrestling in a lot of areas that was going to help him do better. I think he really made bigger gains than maybe at least I anticipated with where he was this season and how he established himself as, if not the best guy, certainly among the best guys in the country at his weight class,” said Robie.
This season, Bolen quickly made a name for himself around the country following a strong performance at the Kliff Keene Invitational, going 5-1 and taking third place against some of the best competition.
He finished the season with an astounding 24-2 record. He won an ACC Championship, beating NC State’s Trent Hidlay 2-1 to claim the 184-pound weight class. Intermat ranked him as the no. 1 wrestler in the country at his weight class, and he was seeded second for the NCAA Championships that never took place.
“I certainly think that he is good enough to have won the Nationals this year for Virginia Tech,” said Robie. “Just knowing how he would have handled the event from an emotional standpoint and from a mental standpoint, I feel even better about his chances of succeeding at those kind of events.”
Mekhi Lewis and his Olympic-Redshirt Season
Coming off of one of the best individual seasons in program history, Virginia Tech and Mekhi Lewis opted to use an Olympic-redshirt to try and qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Games. Despite the Olympics now being postponed to 2021 due to the Coronavirus, it was a successful season for the National Champion. One of the highlights was qualifying for the Olympic Trials.
“I think he really developed a lot as a wrestler with this Olympic-redshirt. It gave him an opportunity to slow things down a little bit and really work in some of the areas where he had room to improve. When Mekhi won the Nationals last year, I felt like he [was] kind of at the tip of the iceberg in terms of how good he could possibly be down the road. I think we’ve seen a lot of that development,” said Robie.
Despite the uncertainty with the Olympics and the new dates that will take place over the next year, one thing is clear. Mekhi Lewis will be wrestling for Virginia Tech next season.
“We really have no sense of what’s going on with the Olympics, which then will dictate when the Olympic trials are. So all of those things are still up in the air. But, Mekhi will be back wrestling for Virginia Tech next year regardless. That’s obviously going to be a big boost for us and for our program,” said Robie.
Reflecting on the 2019-2020 Season
There were plenty of moments to take away from the 2019-2020 Hokies season. It started off on a high note, defeating three ranked opponents in No. 9 Missouri, No. 21 Northwestern and upsetting No. 3 Ohio State in Columbus.
It featured a few disappointing lows as well. The 23-10 loss to No. 12 North Carolina at home, dropping a heartbreaker to No. 3 NC State 21-18, and finishing fifth at the ACC Championships.
However, the season wasn’t complete. The pinnacle moment and stage will always be missing from this year’s team.
“It definitely makes it more difficult to evaluate the season. We didn’t end on a good note at the ACC Championships. I felt like we probably overachieved as a team early in the season, and then we probably underachieved maybe a little bit at the end of the season,” said Robie.
If there’s one last thing this team wanted, it was the chance to go out on a positive note.
“[I] would have loved to [have] had an opportunity to see how we could have finished this thing out because you get a couple guys in the NCAA finals, you get a champion, you feel completely different about the way the season ended than we did maybe at the ACC Championships.”
For now, the Hokies are in the offseason. Despite facilities being closed to all Virginia Tech athletes, this is a period where typically the coaching staff lets the team have 2-3 weeks off to do their own thing. They’re communicating primarily through the GroupMe app and email.
Next season, the Hokies bring a lot of talent back. Headlined by the return of Mekhi Lewis, Hunter Bolen will be on a quest for a National Championship, as will Lewis as he tries for his second. Collin Gerardi, Mitch Moore and John Borst all took steps forward in their respective weight classes.
As the Hokies move on to the 2020-2021 season, many will still look back and wonder what would have happened at the NCAA Championships.
“We’ll never know what could have been this year and we just have to move forward. It’s got to be business as usual once we get back into our usual routine and try to prepare for the future and next year,” said Robie.