COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Kevin Dresser certainly has paid his dues.
A highly successful high school coach for nearly two full decades in Virginia, Dresser has now built a very successful college program over the last decade at Virginia Tech.
And now the Hokies may have assembled their best team in school history.
Dresser’s powerful Virginia Tech team features a talented and loaded roster with the type of firepower to make a run at a top-four trophy at the 2016 NCAA Championships in New York City.
Virginia Tech starts the season ranked No. 5 nationally, boasting a lineup that includes two-time All-American Nick Brascetta (157 pounds) along with All-Americans Joey Dance (125 pounds), Zach Epperly (174) and Ty Walz (heavyweight).
Brascetta, Epperly and Walz are each scheduled to compete in the NWCA All-Star Classic on Nov. 1 in Atlanta.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Dresser said. “If we can get the right guys in the lineup and keep them healthy, we can do some damage in New York City. We’re definitely excited. This is a pretty good team with some proven veterans and some really good young guys.”
Dresser, a native of Humboldt, Iowa, and an NCAA champion for Iowa, has gradually built the Virginia Tech wrestling program into one of the nation’s elite. Dresser took over the Hokies program in 2006 when Tom Brands left for Iowa.
Virginia Tech won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship in 2013 and 2014, along with a dual-meet title in 2015. The Hokies finished in the top 10 nationally in all three of those years.
“It definitely hasn’t been easy,” Dresser said. “We were 81st in the country my first two years here – we were last and last. So it’s obviously taken a little bit of time. This is my 10th year and we’ve been in the top 10 in the nation the last four years. The next step is to go from top 10 to top 5, and that obviously is a much different deal.
“We lost Devin Carter, who was an NCAA finalist and a three-time All-American for us, but on paper we still have the best team we’ve ever had this year. That says a lot about the kids we’ve brought in here.”
Dresser, 52, spent 18 years as a coach on the high-school level before landing the head-coaching position at Virginia Tech.
Dresser was the head coach at Christiansburg High School for 10 seasons, winning the Virginia Group AA state title five times and claiming second place three times. Prior to his stint in Christiansburg, he led Grundy High School in Virginia to eight titles in as many years.
Dresser never dreamed he would end up spending virtually his entire professional career in the state of Virginia.
“I was 25 years old and I was broke,” Dresser said with a laugh. “It was 1988 when Grundy called me. They flew me out and offered me the job to be their wrestling coach.”
Dresser also wasn’t sure he would ever coach at the collegiate level after spending so many years at the high-school level.
“Timing is everything in life,” Dresser said. “It was really good timing when the job opened up at Virginia Tech. I was coaching at Christiansburg, which is located just seven or eight miles from the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. It’s worked out really well for us.
“It’s a really good school on a great campus. The weather is really nice here. It’s a really good place to get a great education and wrestle in a top-level program.”
Dresser said there were benefits and drawbacks to being at the prep level so long.
“Being a high school coach, I had an advantage in certain areas and then obviously some disadvantages,” Dresser said in 2013. “I think the advantage coming in was I had a lot of relationships with high school coaches. Also, I think every college coach needs to be a high school coach for at least five years because I think you learn how to do everything. When I was a high school coach, I washed towels, I folded towels, I mopped mats, I set up this, I set up that, I got the mats ready to go. It gives you appreciation and I think it helps you enhance your college program.
“I already understood how to build a fan base because I had to do it. Obviously, from the other side of things, yes the level of athleticism and the margin of error at the Division I versus high school is a huge difference. In high school, rarely do you get those two guys, that are elite guys, that both want to beat the crap out of each other. That happens every weekend in college. Getting adjusted to the finer points of winning and losing at the college level was something I had to learn.”
Dresser was a two-time Iowa state champion at Humboldt High School. In 2009, he was inducted into the Iowa High School Athletic Association Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“Iowa was really a great place to grow up,” Dresser said. “And there were a lot of great wrestlers coming out of the state back then like Jim Zalesky, Barry Davis, Jeff Kerber, Tom and Terry Brands, and Mark Reiland. The high school wrestling in Iowa was at a very high level back then. It was an exciting time, that’s for sure.”
Dresser graduated from the University of Iowa, where he won an NCAA title in 1986 at 142 pounds. He was a two-time All-American as well as a two-time Big Ten champion. For his performance in 1986, he received the Mike Howard Award, given to the most valuable wrestler for the Hawkeyes.
Dresser earned his degree in general studies from Iowa in 1986. He and his wife, Penny, have three children: Emma, Anna and Jack.
Dresser has added some Iowa flavor to his coaching staff this season with the addition of past Hawkeye standouts Mike Zadick and Derek St. John.
Zadick will serve as a volunteer assistant coach under Dresser. He spent 10 years on the University of Iowa coaching staff, helping the Hawkeyes win three NCAA titles and three Big Ten titles.
A three-time All-American wrestler for Iowa, Zadick won a World silver medal in freestyle wrestling in 2006 and also competed for the U.S. at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
“Mike Zadick is a winner,” Dresser said. “He was a winner as an athlete and is a winner as a coach. He brings knowledge, toughness, and, he brings a genuine excitement and passion to be at Virginia Tech. He is double dangerous with his knowledge in the folkstyle and freestyle arenas – our program just got much stronger.”
St. John will serve as the volunteer director of wrestling operations for the Hokies. He comes to Virginia Tech after one season as an assistant coach at North Dakota State. St. John was an NCAA champion, two-time national finalist and four-time All-American wrestler for Iowa.
“We are very excited with the addition of Derek St. John to our staff,” Dresser said. “Derek has goals of being a head coach someday, and this role will benefit him greatly. He will be involved in many new areas. Derek also wants to have the opportunity to compete in the near future, so having a great place to train is important as well. The addition of Derek St. John at Virginia Tech will benefit all of us.”
Dresser certainly benefited from his time wrestling at Iowa.
“I was there five years as an athlete and we won five national titles, so I'd be foolish not to take something away from that experience,” Dresser said. “I think I understand that toughness and that work ethic, but at the same time I think over the years I've been around a lot of great coaches, and I've worked with a lot of great coaches, and I have some great assistant coaches at Virginia Tech in Tony Robie and David Hoffman.
“I think my wrestling knowledge and IQ is pretty high right now just because all of the time I've put in. I think that, along with working hard, eventually turns into W's.”
Dresser wrestled under the legendary Dan Gable at Iowa. Gable was an Olympic and World champion before leading the Hawkeyes to a remarkable 15 NCAA titles in his 21 seasons as Iowa’s head coach.
“Gable was still in his 30s when I wrestled there,” Dresser said. “He was the king of the room and could kick everyone’s butt on the team, and that’s saying something because I was on some great teams.
“Gable put together an environment of guys that were overachievers who would simply work harder than anybody else. That level of toughness I learned from my time there has been very valuable in my life. It was a pretty special time when I wrestled there. I appreciate that more as I get older. I have some great memories from my time at Iowa.”
And now Dresser is looking for a storybook season at Virginia Tech.
“It’s a very long season from October to March, and a lot can happen,” he said. “But we’re really looking forward to this season. Our guys are excited and ready to go.”