BLACKSBURG — Like many people, Mekhi Lewis keeps cleaning supplies in his utility closet.
But that’s not all the Virginia Tech wrestler stores there.
That’s also where you will find the trophy he earned for winning the 165-pound title at the NCAA championships in Pittsburgh last month — and the trophy he received for being named the most outstanding wrestler of that tournament.
“I don’t really like showing off the stuff I get,” he said before a practice last week.
The redshirt freshman went 5-0 at the tournament to become the first NCAA wrestling champ in Virginia Tech history.
“I thought I could be in the position of winning nationals, but for it to actually happen, it actually came true, it’s a pretty big deal to me,” he said. “I’m pretty grateful.”
He enjoys reliving the moment.
“I watch the video of the finals, and then I watch the video they made for me on Twitter for the whole tournament,” he said. “Rewatching it gives me goosebumps sometimes, thinking I really was in that position. That was me. I’m watching myself. I just can’t believe it.”
‘A different level’
Lewis, who grew up in New Jersey, began wrestling when he was 5 or 6 years old.
Over the years, he sometimes lost his passion for the sport.
“There [were] a bunch of times where I wanted to quit,” Lewis said. “I just remember telling myself that if I really want to go to college and live a good life, that I would need to have something to get me out.”
Lewis attended the high school alma mater of former Hokies wrestler Nick Murray. Murray’s father recommended Tech to Lewis and his parents, and pitched Lewis to the Tech coaches.
So when he was in high school, Lewis attended a few Tech wrestling camps.
“That’s when we kind of got an idea of how good he could be,” said Tech head coach Tony Robie, who was an assistant to then-Hokies coach Kevin Dresser at the time. “Athletically, he was on a different level.”
Lewis, who blossomed into a state champ, committed to the Hokies in the fall of his senior year. He picked Tech over Nebraska, Rutgers and others. He reaped a full scholarship.
He was redshirted as a Hokies freshman in the 2017-18 season.
“It wasn’t a fun year, redshirting, because I wasn’t really a part of the team,” he said. “But it was a good learning experience.
“There was a lot I still needed to build on.”
He competed unattached in tournaments that season.
“I [gained] … a stronger mindset from redshirting,” he said. “I used to always doubt myself.”
Lewis’ confidence gained an even bigger boost in September when he won gold for the United States at the 2018 junior world championships in Slovakia. He beat Abubakar Abakarov of Azerbaijan in the finals of the 74-kilogram class.
It marked only the third time Lewis had competed in a freestyle tournament — the kind of wrestling found in the Olympics, as opposed to the folkstyle brand of high school and college wrestling.
“Winning worlds, it helped me with knowing I could wrestle with all these older guys,” he said.
The 5-foot-7 Lewis won the ACC title in his weight class in early March to improve to 23-2 entering the NCAAs.
“You have a kid that’s got the athleticism, has the drive, has the motivation, has the intelligence,” Robie said. “On our day off, he’ll come and work out twice. We have to actually pull him out of the wrestling room and tell him he’s got to take some time off.”
Lewis was seeded only eighth out of 33 wrestlers in his weight class for the NCAAs. But he was still optimistic.
“My confidence was just through the roof, to the point where nobody would be able to tell me I wasn’t going to be a national champion,” he said.
After winning his first two matches, Lewis had to face No. 1 seed Alex Marinelli of Iowa in the quarterfinals. Marinelli had not lost all season, but Lewis won 3-1.
Lewis beat fourth-seeded Evan Wick of Wisconsin 5-2 in the semifinals.
He would have to face the No. 2 seed, two-time defending NCAA champ Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State, in the March 23 final. Lewis had to wait all day for the Saturday night finals to arrive.
“I was getting a little nervous,” Lewis said. “I had to remind myself it’s my first time here and I should have no pressure on me at all.
“That whole mindset that I had … helped my confidence go through the roof. I just had so much fun wrestling out there.”
As the ESPN cameras looked on, Lewis knocked off Joseph 7-1.
Lewis was so focused that he blocked out the sound of everyone at PPG Paints Arena.
“It sounded like, you turn on the TV and it’s like the white screen — it’s like the shhhhh,” Lewis said. “That’s all I heard, it was just shhhhh. I couldn’t hear yelling. I couldn’t hear my coaches who were right next to me.”
A jubilant Lewis hugged his coaches at the end of the match. After the referee raised his arm, Lewis noticed his parents and aunt and uncle had been moved to seats on the floor for his match. He raced over to hug them.
“That was probably my favorite part,” he said. “I can’t even remember what my dad said to me, but he said something. I think he said he was proud of me.”
Lewis’ run to the title was so impressive that he was named the most outstanding wrestler of the tournament, becoming the first ACC wrestler to earn that honor in 10 years. Lewis thought Robie was joking when Robie gave him the news.
Lewis finished 28-2 on the season, earning ACC wrestler of the year honors.
“On his feet, he’s really good. He’s almost impossible to score on,” Robie said. “He didn’t give up a takedown at the NCAA tournament.”
Lewis is already training for his next challenge.
Although the 19-year-old Lewis is still eligible for junior events, he wants to try to make the U.S. team for the 2019 senior world championships. He will compete in the team trials next month in North Carolina.
But first, there is the Tech wrestling team banquet this weekend.
His parents will be making the drive from New Jersey to attend it — and to bring home those two trophies he keeps in his apartment closet. They will also be taking home his world championship belt, which he keeps at a teammate’s place.
“I got a [trophy] case,” his father, Keith Lewis, said. “I got a pretty big one. Still got a few more years to go, so I kind of considered that.”