2023 Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational

Virginia Tech Wrestling Shuffling The Deck For Las Vegas

Virginia Tech Wrestling Shuffling The Deck For Las Vegas

Virginia Tech is hunting individual titles at the Cliff Keen Invitational, but the Hokies are headed to Vegas without mainstays Sam Latona and Mekhi Lewis.

Nov 29, 2023 by Jim Carlson
Virginia Tech Wrestling Shuffling The Deck For Las Vegas

A Virginia Tech season that opened with a deflating loss to #5 Ohio State has taken a much-needed U-turn with wins over American and #21 Rutgers and a four-champion performance at the Keystone Open. Coach Tony Robie will look for continued progress Friday and Saturday at the talent-laden Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, but only seven Hokies boarded the westbound plane on Wednesday.

Robie said the team will not have entrants at 133, 141 or 174, and freshman Sonny Sasso at 197 will replace Andy Smith, who suffered a minor injury in practice on Tuesday. Sam Latona (133) and Mekhi Lewis (174) did not leave the NWCA All-Star Classic on Nov. 21 in good health, and Robie is sending his 141-pounders to the Patriot Open at George Mason University on Sunday.

The Hokies entertain Stanford on Dec. 17 and there’s a lot of time until back-to-back road matches against #3 Missouri and #4 Cornell on Jan. 2 and Jan. 7, so Robie is looking at headway and advancement where he can find it.

“In some places I would say we are (making progress) and in some places we still need to continue to improve,” he said. “We’re playing with some lineup options to try to get everything squared away before we hit the second half of the season. We’re still trying to figure a lot of things out right now.

“But I do think we wrestled better against Rutgers in a lot of places; I still think there’s more and it’s still early and I think it’s about progression right now. I think we’ll continue to improve.”

Specifically, Robie wants to see more offensive development. 

“I think in some places we just need to be more aggressive and attack a little bit more,” he said. “From a technical standpoint, we definitely are not doing a great job finishing takedowns; that’s always an area that I feel like we can get better in. And then our bottom wrestling are some areas I think are hurting us right now.

“We’ve been trying to tackle those areas and others in practice and try to improve where we need to improve, and work with guys individually on the areas where they need to improve so we’re ready for the end of the season when it matters the most.”

The Hokies’ Eddie Ventresca medically forfeited out of the Keystone Open, but he’ll open the Hokies’ Vegas lineup at 125, Robie said. Ventresca earned a #16 pre-seed and will have to contend with the likes of #1 Matt Ramos (Purdue) and #8 Kysen Terukina (Iowa State) in the early rounds.

Tech’s veterans kick in at 149 and 157 with fourth-ranked Caleb Henson and fifth-ranked Bryce Andonian, respectively. Both received CKLV #3 pre-seeds behind Nebraska and Arizona State, with Ridge Lovett and Kyle Parco ahead of Henson and Peyton Robb and Jacori Teemer in front of Andonian. Both weight classes are deep.

Robie used freshmen Mac Church at 141 and Rafael Hipolito at 165 against Rutgers. Hipolito, who beat #23 Anthony White 13-7 in the Rutgers match, will get the call in Vegas. 

“Yeah, 41 and 65 are weight classes where we’re trying to figure out who the guy is,” Robie said. “So we’re giving guys opportunities, with those five opportunities they have as freshmen before their redshirt is burnt. Rafael Hipolito is going to get some more opportunities at 165. He did a great job for us against Rutgers.

“He’s a little undersized, but he’s in the process of trying to get a little bit bigger to be a full-size 65-pounder. And then Mac Church and Hunter Mason will continue to try to see who we feel like has the best opportunity to help us this year, the best fit for us in the second semester.”

Points at the CKLV event will be at a premium because the field is deep and talented. Pick a top-20 team other than Penn State, Missouri and Iowa and they are probably headed to Sin City. The team that changes that nickname to Win City will have earned it.

The Hokies will close out their Vegas lineup with #10 pre-seed Connor Brady at 165, #11 pre-seed Sam Fisher at 184, Sasso at 197 and #10 pre-seed Hunter Catka at 285. Fisher upended ninth-ranked Brian Soldano 10-9 in the Rutgers match.

“Sonny (Sasso) was going to go to the Patriot Open, but if he’s going to burn a date, we’d just as soon bring him out to Vegas with us and give him a shot to wrestle with the big boys,” Robie said.

Robie said earlier this season that he feels good about the commitment of his freshman class and how much they love wrestling. 

“We’re excited about this group,” he said. “I think we have a lot of talent; it will be fun to watch these guys develop over the course of their careers.”