UVa's gracious grappler | Cavalier Insider (LINK)

In the hustle and bustle of building a national power, coaches often miss a few things on the periphery.

Even the meticulous and motivating mind of Virginia wrestling coach Steve Garland is surprised on occasion by the feats performed outside of the mat.

There was an excellent example last year, one that still brings a smile to the Cavaliers? leader.

Derek Valenti, who had just completed a remarkable season wrestling at 141 pounds, impressed a local elementary school teacher enough to have the instructor pass on the news about Valenti?s work with the ACE program to Garland.

?It was this beautiful letter about how Derek had touched all the kids and how the kids were so sad to see him go,? Garland recounted. ?He didn?t just do it for something to put on his resume, he really took it to the next level and really took a vested interest in these guys.

?I thought that was pretty cool. Frankly, I am pretty myopic. I get caught in my own little world and I didn?t even know Derek was even doing this.?

Valenti, a junior from Newton, N.J., joined teammate Nick Nelson in reading books to students, something that does not sound so dynamic on the surface.

Don?t tell that to Valenti.

?Within five minutes of being there I knew what was going to happen was one of the most humbling experiences I will ever have, on the mat, off the mat or in the classroom,? Valenti said. ?It was a great life experience. You could call it life-changing. You don?t take anything for granted anymore.

?Being able to have a first grader smile, it?s humbling about what you do and you notice that there is more to life than wrestling or academics.?

Valenti jumped at the chance to take part in the program again this year, working currently at Venable, and laughs at some of the questions and comments tossed at a student-athlete from a lower-publicized sport at UVa.

?The kids definitely know the main athletic sports. They?ll ask you right away, ?Why don?t you play football??,? Valenti said with a smile. ?With wrestling, every time you originally tell them that, you get about four kids that ask you if you know [WWE star] John Cena. It is always their first question and I am like, ?No, it?s a little bit different.?

?Then it?s actually fun, once you get into it and you just start talking to the kids, they look up to you.?

That Valenti took such pride in his work at the schools does not shock his head coach, but it is tough to analyze recruits and predict an athlete will develop into a role model.

?I think that is one of the hardest things to do as a recruiter. A lot of people give you lip service,? he said. ?What parent in their right mind when you are sitting in their home is going is going to say, ?Yeah, my kid is going to need a lot of work. My kid is a little rough around the edges.?

?All they say is, ?He?s so great coach. He?s as sweet as pie. He does this right and he is going to beat everybody.? I think it takes a sixth sense. People a lot more experienced than me still make mistakes.?

Valenti was the exception to the rule.

?On a kid like Derek it was pretty evident. First of all, his parents are the salt of the earth,? Garland said. ?They really are great people and I feel like the apple doesn?t fall far.?

The kids would have an even greater respect for Valenti if they knew the sacrifices that he made this year for the Cavaliers.

As Mother Nature played a part, Valenti?s weight soared to 162 pounds over the summer as he got stronger.

It forced Garland to adjust his preseason planning.

?It wasn?t an easy decision but what it came down to with Derek was his body was telling us that he had to do it,? the coach said. ?Sometime you just have to listen to your body. These kids grow. These kids are 18 when they come in and God is not done with them yet. His body looks a lot different than it did last year. He is just much bigger.?

A year after advancing to the NCAA Championships, Valenti was suddenly moving up to the 149-pound weight class, a tough proposition.

?The 149-pound weight class, historically, if you look every year, it is probably the hardest weight class in the country,? Garland said. ?Moving up from 41 to that wasn?t an easy decision.

?We said not only do we need you and we had Nelson who was coming off redshirt and he was ranked 12th in the country at 141 ? but really we didn?t have an option anyway because he was so big.

?He was up to about 162 this summer. That?s not fair to you to make you cut that much weight. I said, ?Let?s be happy, let?s be strong and let?s focus on getting better as a wrestler as opposed to losing weight each week.??

Valenti has seen some bumps in the road, but has a 9-5 record with the most important part of the season coming.

?This jump right now, everybody is bigger,? he said. ?I feel like I started off weaker than everybody, but I have been working every week to get stronger than everybody.

?I can feel myself just really building into the weight class. It didn?t happen overnight, but come March, with the help of my teammates I plan to be ready. It?s still the same mental toughness to be able to wrestle and get the accolades at 149 that I wanted at 141. Knowing that I can be there is the biggest thing.?

And at the end of grueling practice sessions or after a tough loss, the emotional lows for Valenti can be turned around with one trip to his local haven.

?You can have a hard day on the mat or a hard day in the classroom, but when I get to go and read a book to a third grader, and just seeing how happy they are the second you walk in the door,? he said, ?nothing else matters except for the smile on their face.?