When things get hard, that’s when you have to be great.
It’s the mentality that true freshman Caleb Henson has lived by his entire life — and it resonates through the entire Virginia Tech wrestling room.
Similar values and beliefs have helped foster and maintain a culture of relentlessness within the program from the top down.
Despite each facing adversity at different points in their respective tournament runs, Henson and fellow underclassman Eddie Ventresca battled their way to All-American status in their first NCAA tournament appearances. They were two of Tech’s five All-Americans in Tulsa — the program’s most since 2017.
While Henson entered the 149-pound bracket as the No. 4 four seed — the highest seeding for a true freshman in program history — Ventresca was awarded only the No. 27 seed at 125 pounds.
After his rocky start to the regular season, the low seed was warranted, but it didn’t discourage the redshirt freshman. He viewed it as a chance to reveal how talented he truly is as a wrestler — and he delivered.
“I think that I proved myself [to be a force at 125],” Ventresca said. “Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of doubt, which I don’t blame anybody. Me coming in as a No. 27 seed, not having a crazy strong season — people didn’t really know what to expect. But also I just had that confidence because I know the work that I’ve put in and all the dedication I’ve put into this sport and I feel like other people don’t see that. I give credit to my coaching staff because they were always making sure I was in a good mental standpoint [in the] second half of the season, making sure I was confident in myself, confident in my wrestling and I think it showed at the NCAA tournament.”
The first domino to fall in Ventresca’s underdog run was Northern Colorado’s No. 6 Stevo Poulin (4-2), who he edged out in overtime. Then he took down Minnesota’s No. 11 Pat McKee (4-2) in the second round.
Ventresca’s pair of upset victories were two that few saw coming, but he didn’t shock himself at all.
“I feel like in the regular season, every match that I lost, I felt like I was one takedown away,” Ventresca explained. “[I was] one little peek away. One little technique standpoint or mental standpoint away from winning those matches.
“I knew that if I figured it out before the NCAA tournament that I was going to be able to make a run at it.”
Following a narrow overtime loss to Nebraska’s No. 3 Liam Cronin (3-1) in the quarterfinals, he continued to fight back. Ventresca nabbed his third top-11 win in the consolation blood round over Wisconsin’s No. 9 Eric Barnett (3-1) to secure his All-American finish.
After falling to Arizona State’s No. 10 Brandon Courtney (4-2) in the consolation quarterfinals, the New Jersey native wrapped a bow on his tournament with a win against West Virginia’s No. 28 Killian Cardinale (7-6) in the seventh place match.
His 20-point jump from the No. 27 seed to his seventh place finish was one of the biggest leaps in the entire tournament — proof that he’ll be a threat at 125 for years to come.
“It was a great feeling,” Ventresca said. “I felt like there was a lot of shenanigans going on at the end of the year with who was starting [at 125] and people obviously didn’t know what was going on in the room or anything. It was a good feeling. That blood round match, obviously I was a little nervous for it, who wouldn’t be nervous for it. It’s kind of do or die in that match and when that last buzzer rang and the whistle blew, I just had this big smile on my face. It was more of a relieving feeling.”
Henson faced early adversity in his first NCAA tournament as well.
The ACC freshman of the year was knocked out of the championship bracket in the second round by Indiana’s No. 20 Graham Rooks (5-4). The upset loss meant he needed three-straight wins to earn All-American honors.
Already being lauded as a favorite to finish in the top eight at 149 pounds before his first bout in Tulsa, the true freshman never wavered despite the initial hurdle.
“Pressure makes diamonds,” Henson said. “I embrace it. It’s another part of the tournament that’s going to come with years to come. So having that pressure and those expectations, it’s something I already have for myself.”
Henson grinded out an overtime win over Central Michigan’s No. 19 Johnny Lovett (5-3) in the second round of the consolation bracket, before besting Penn’s No. 11 Doug Zapf (3-2) a round later.
Facing his first top ten opponent of the tournament, he handled Northwestern’s No. 7 Thomas Yahya (7-2) in the consolation blood round to clinch an All-American finish in his first collegiate season.
“Just not having fear,” Henson explained his mindset during the clutch run. “Allow my mind and body to do what I’ve worked so hard [for], just wrestle.”
Henson lost to Penn State’s No. 12 Shane Van Ness (5-3) in the consolation semifinals, but dominated Iowa’s No. 8 Max Murin (12-3) in the fifth place match to finish in the top five at 149.
With a year of starting experience under their belts, Henson and Ventresca will be even more prepared heading into next season — and both are on a mission to ascend to new heights in 2024.
“I’ll go back and watch some film and then get to work in the offseason,” Ventresca said. “I didn’t win [the national championship], so there’s obviously places for me to improve. So that’s our mentality over the next year.”
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