BLACKSBURG — Growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, Zack Zavatsky fell in love with wrestling.
He decided to leave the area to attend college, but he will return there for the final tournament of his college wrestling career.
The Virginia Tech standout will be the No. 3 seed in the 184-pound weight class at the NCAA championships, which will be held Thursday through Saturday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
“It’s pretty special,” Zavatsky said of ending his Hokies career in Pittsburgh. “It’s pretty cool.”
The fifth-year senior lost in the semifinals at the NCAAs in Cleveland last year. He wound up in sixth place, earning All-America honors.
This year, Zavatsky hopes to leave the NCAAs as a champion.
“Something that’s always been in my head is trying to be Virginia Tech wrestling’s first national champ,” he said. “It’s definitely what I’m striving for. It’s what I’ve been working for for five years here. That’s just the ultimate goal which would complete my career.”
Zavatksy’s parents named him Zachary.
“It’ wasn’t a ‘ZZ Top’ thing,” said his father, Rick Zavatsky.
Zavatsky — who is known as “ZZ” on the Hokies wrestling team — grew up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He began wrestling when he was 5 years old.
“Me and my [older] brother were just fighting too much around the house,” he said. “My parents were tired of us bickering and fighting and having too much energy, so they took us to wrestling practice.”
He also played football and baseball. But he gave up those sports to focus on wrestling when he was in the eighth grade.
“I was always picking up on stuff pretty well and getting better every year, so … I walked up to [his father] one day and said, ‘I think I want to just wrestle now,’” Zavatsky said. “I just wanted to see how far it would take me.”
Virginia Tech began recruiting him after his junior season in high school.
“He was still somewhat physically immature at that time,” said Virginia Tech coach Tony Robie, who was promoted from assistant to head coach in the spring of 2017. “We knew he had a lot of growing to do and was going to get bigger and stronger and more manly.”
Zavatsky picked the Hokies over Pittsburgh, Lehigh and Virginia.
“I had a lot of friends and people from high school that always went to Pittsburgh or Penn State,” he said. “I kind of wanted to do a little bit different path.”
The 6-foot-1 Zavatsky redshirted his first year at Virginia Tech.
“People were lifting like crazy here. People were really big and strong — men,” he said. “It kind of took awhile to … get some man strength.”
Zavatksy won the ACC title at 184 pounds as a redshirt freshman in 2016. He was seeded fifth at the NCAAs but lost in the quarterfinals en route to a 2-2 finish. He did not earn All-America honors, which go to the top eight finishers in each weight class.
He won the ACC crown again the following year. He was again seeded fifth at the NCAAs but lost in the second round en route to a 1-2 finish. He again left without earning All-America honors.
“The end of the season my freshman year, my sophomore year was kind of disappointing,” he said. “I didn’t perform to the best of my ability at the end of the year, which was really difficult for me to try and take in. It was really hard to rebound and refocus … when you have a great year and you don’t live up to the potential.”
But last year, the sixth-seeded Zavatsky made it to the semifinals at the NCAAs before finishing sixth and finally earning All-America honors.
“It felt great getting that weight off my shoulders,” he said.
He credited a more relaxed mind-set at the NCAAs.
“I do my best when I’m just focused on the next person in front of me, asking my coach, ‘Who do I have next?’” said Zavatsky, who went 31-8 last year. “I attacked it like that. I wasn’t concerned about what anybody else was doing.”
“He’s emotionally gotten a lot better at handling the highs and lows that go along with wrestling at this level,” Robie said. “He’s really gotten a lot better at understanding competition and not letting his emotions get the better of him.”
Zavatsky is 105-22 in his Hokies career, including 24-3 this season. He ranks 12th in Tech history in career wins.
Last weekend he won the 184-pound title at the ACC championships at Cassell Coliseum, becoming the sixth wrestler in Tech history to win at least three ACC titles.
“He’s a student of the sport of wrestling,” Robie said. “He can coach himself in a lot of situations.”
Zavatsky has become the 14th wrestler in Tech history to advance to four NCAA tournaments. This is the third time he has been a top-five seed at the NCAAs — a school record. He has the best seed among the nine Hokies who have made the NCAAs this year.
Unbeaten Shakur Rasheed of Penn State is the No. 2 seed in Zavatsky’s weight class, so those two could meet in the semifinals Friday. Rasheed took a medical forfeit in the 184-pound finals at the recent Big Ten championships.
Undefeated Myles Martin of Ohio State is the No. 1 seed, so Zavatsky might see him in Saturday’s final. Martin won the 174-pound crown in 2016 and was the runner-up at 184 last year. Zavatsky beat him two seasons ago at a tournament in Las Vegas.
Only two wrestlers in Tech history have ever made the NCAA finals, but Zavatsky said he feels capable of getting there.
“It’s just making sure that I’m mentally prepared to the fullest and physically prepared so when I get out to the national tournament, that I’m just confident every match,” he said.
Zavatsky, who is taking two courses this semester, is on track to graduate in May with a degree in packaging systems and design. He already has a job at Corning Inc. in Christiansburg lined up. He will start work as a shift supervisor later this month.
“It’s kind of like coaching up a team, but you’re working with catalytic convertors,” he said. “It’ll be awesome to stay around the area and try and come in here on my off days and help out the team.”
But first, he is heading home for one last tournament.
“We couldn’t have asked to finish up at a better place,” his father said.